In a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives and works abroad, Madecadel Barriere has become a symbol of success by serving...
SANTA TECLA, El Salvador — In a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives and works abroad, Madecadel Barriere has become a symbol of success by serving expatriates a taste of being home again.
Call it the globalization of nostalgia.
In his small factory, Barriere makes instant horchata, a beloved Salvadoran refreshment that includes cacao, nuts, vanilla, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and sugar. He toasts the ingredients, grinds them into powder and exports them to the 2.5 million Salvadorans in the United States. They add water, take a sip and feel a little less homesick.
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“Horchata is almost never missing at birthday parties, especially for children,” he said.
Barriere’s drink is just one of many “nostalgia foods” that Central American officials hope will be a booming export market under a free-trade agreement with the United States that Congress will decide whether to ratify this spring.
Following in the footsteps of Mexicans who ship native foods to relatives in the United States, the Salvadorans are hoping the export of products like horchata and turnoverlike pupusas are a first step in using the treaty to jump-start their struggling economy.
The treaty, negotiated last year by the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, faces a tough road. Central American protesters fear their countries will be steamrolled by powerful U.S. businesses; in the United States, the treaty is opposed by the powerful sugar and labor lobbies.
But officials here say increased access to the U.S. market is crucial for the stability of a region still recuperating from its 1980s civil wars, frustrated at a slow payoff from other U.S.-backed economic policies and fearful of losing out to rising competition from China.
Salvadoran officials say that merely negotiating the treaty opened trade channels that created opportunities. Some small businesses have already begun shipping corn tamales, pineapple-flavored semita pies and special black-clay pottery to the United States, some of which are being sold in mainstream stores.
“The important thing is all these opportunities, not only for the large corporations, but little businesses too,” said Yolanda Mayora de Gavidia, El Salvador’s economy minister. “We have to have a clear vision about where are these products and niches through which we can compete in the market.”
For Washington state, the deal could lift exports of wine, fruit, jets and software. Exports from Washington state to the region were $155 million in 2003, more than triple the previous year’s total, according to the Commerce Department.
Hopes for the nostalgia market also fit nicely with a growing realization among Salvadorans that they need an alternative path to development that is not so dependent on textile assembly-for-export factories, cash sent home by immigrants and the traditional coffee crop.
Proponents say the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA, will lock in the region’s low tariffs and other trade advantages and reassure foreign investors. But critics fear it will mostly benefit already-rich maquila owners and sugar exporters.
Others are skeptical at the cyclical irony of promoting the export of food to compatriots who had to leave the country because of a lack of work opportunities.
“And with (pupusas) we’re going to solve the problems of the poor in this country?” asked Hector Dada, an economist and opposition lawmaker. “In Washington (D.C.), they already make exquisite pupusas, with white corn imported from Mexico. How are we going to compete with that?”
Nevertheless, a United Nations report last year singled out the nostalgia export market for its potential. It cited 190 possible products, from Mexico and El Salvador alone, and noted that immigrants in the United States have more purchasing power than their compatriots back home.
But it also noted the difficulties for small-scale businesses trying to export, such as a lack of access to bank financing, knowledge about sanitary requirements in the United States and awareness of government support programs.
It gave one example of a Salvadoran who tried to export a food product to the United States. Part of it became stranded and rotted at the border because it lacked labels saying where the fat content came from.
The government has offered help through a technical assistance fund, micro-financing programs, an accelerated paperwork system and links to potential U.S. importers.
Barriere, who started exporting his horchata in 2002, said CAFTA would definitely help. It would lock in a tariff exemption he enjoyed on a year-to-year basis. Sugar-product producers like him also would benefit from higher import quotas to the United States.
He opened his business in the late 1980s after being laid off as a government economist. He started with about $600, and his first products were packaged grains and spices for some of the country’s first supermarkets.
“At first, it was just me in the garage,” he said. “People were always saying, ‘For small businesses, it’s too difficult to export,’ and I thought that, too.”
But when the government began negotiating CAFTA, Barriere attended export seminars for small businessmen. The government helped him with technical advice and to buy a computer and provided him access to a Canadian microbiologist to consult on quality control.
Today, Barriere’s company, La Canasta, or “The Basket,” has 43 employees, monthly sales of more than $40,000 and regular pallet-sized shipments to New York, New Jersey, California, Texas and Australia.