San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemala's message to investors: 'You can feel safe here'

GUATEMALA CITY – Long characterized by decades of conflict and poverty, Guatemala is seeking to present a new image of itself as a safe, stable and competitive destination for foreign investment.

Global expectations were high as 234 investors from 26 countries arrived in Guatemala City last month at the country’s largest ever Investment Summit, to learn about the potential of the nation at the entrance to Mesoamerica.

During the two-day conference, which featured a keynote address from the former president of Chile, Eduardo Frei, President Otto Pérez Molina asked investors to trust in Guatemala and promised them “clear rules” for doing business in the country.

“Investors can feel safe here. In 2012, we were declared as one of the 12 emerging economies of the world,” Pérez Molina said. “As a government, we are working to strengthen the injection of foreign capital and provide businessmen with the confidence [to invest].”

Last year, foreign investment in Guatemala grew by 25 percent and, with the government’s recent reforms to the country’s employment law and judicial security, analysts are predicting an additional 15 percent growth this year.

The president hopes the summit will create 100,000 jobs and generate around $2 billion in foreign and local investment, some of which will be focused on developing poor, rural areas.

“Our best social policy is a good economic policy. We think we can help the poor and improve social situations with economic solutions. We have to provide people with jobs, opportunities and training, and that comes with investment,” said Luis David, director of Invest in Guatemala.

“The first obstacle for foreign investment is knowledge. We have one problem regarding security, and another regarding the international perception of security. Everyone knows about the genocide trial, about the extradition of the former president, but they don’t know we have a city with 3 million people, that we have the best energy park and biggest metropolitan district from Mexico to Bogotá. We haven’t been able to communicate that message and it’s one of our biggest obstacles,” David said.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was keen to show his support for his southern neighbor. Arriving on the second day of the summit he called for the two nations to work together to eradicate hunger and generate more jobs.

“We believe that working together will be a faster and more effective way to develop our countries. Together we still have enormous growth potential,” Peña Nieto said.

Guatemala is the largest country in Central America and accounts for 37 percent of the region’s economy. Many see its young population, 70 percent of whom are under 30, as its secret weapon, but others question if the government will be able to harness this potential.

Event organizer Fernando López said the event had planted a seed in investors’ minds, which he hopes will blossom in the near future.

“I’ll be happy if in two or three years we can say our gross domestic product grew by not three percent but six because of foreign and local investment,” López said. “We’re trying to generate formal jobs, and we’ll be able to track if we make a dent on that. I’ll consider that the success mark.”

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