By Luke Bujarski
In an exclusive behind-closed-doors interview, Nearshore Americas and market research firm Ovum teamed up to speak with Mr. Alvaro Baltodano, politically appointed head of investment promotion for Nicaragua’s Ortega Administration. From labor capacity to investor perceptions, Mr. Baltodano was very well informed and open to talk about the key issues.
The retired Sandinista general clearly outlined the administration’s strategy around BPO as an important economic development engine for the country. During the interview, he made several phone calls to ProNicaragua personnel to confirm important statistical figures on school enrollment and population figures. Ovum’s Lead BPO Analyst Peter Ryan was also impressed with Mr. Baltodano’s candor and willingness to address sensitive issues head on, even on trade relations with Venezuela and country security.
NSAM/Ovum: How would you describe the current administration’s ties to the global community?
Baltodano: Nicaragua is very open to foreign investment and markets. Exports are up 71 percent and all of the major investors are already here including the US, the EU, Canada, and various Asian countries. Relations with the Obama administration are positive. Nicaragua is an active member of the Central America Free Trade Agreement and we expect to continue working with the US to maximize opportunities for Nicaraguan exports and foreign investors. Our foreign policy is driven more by economics rather than politics.
We have a comprehensive strategy that includes relationship building with markets in all directions. The United States and Canada to the North; China to the East where we’ve recently opened a trade office; regional cooperation in Central America; and our partners to the sound including Brazil.
NSAM/Ovum: What about Venezuela?
Baltodano: Our trade agreements and investments coming from Venezuela have been important in the creation of jobs and opportunities for the Nicaraguan people. This is our [the Ortega administration] primary objective so our relations with Venezuela are driven by good economics rather than political ideology. We have trade relations with many countries which all work to improve conditions. We constantly re-access these relationships to ensure that they are serving our development objectives. This includes Venezuela.
NSAM/Ovum: How does BPO fit into the overall development strategy for Nicaragua?
Baltodano: We asked the BPO industry to participate in this forum (Let’s Grow Together!) because we recognize the potential it holds for job creation. Nicaragua currently has 153,000 students enrolled in our university systems. We are aware that our current economy does not offer enough opportunity for those with higher aspirations. BPO has been a positive presence in Nicaragua because it provides good jobs for recent graduates, but also as a stepping stone for those Nicaraguans living abroad, who want to come back to their home country to live and work. There are many Nicaraguans that are now coming back so we need to keep them busy. Our administration will continue to work closely with ProNicaragua and other agencies to ensure that the door is open for BPO.
NSAM/Ovum: Are you concerned about drug-related violence spilling over into Nicaragua?
Baltodano: These issues are worrisome since they are affecting our neighbors, but we have managed the situation quite well and will continue to be proactive to ensure the ongoing safety of our citizens. Nicaragua is very safe compared to neighboring countries and we want to keep it that way. This includes cooperation with our neighbors as well as the United States to ensure that visitors and investors are safe to come and visit and do business here.
NSAM/Ovum: Tourism in Nicaragua is also growing. Do you believe that Nicaragua’s labor force will be strong enough to handle demand for English speakers?
Baltodano: Tourism is important for Nicaragua but I don’t think that there will be direct competition for labor with the BPO sector. Most of the tourism jobs are concentrated in coastal areas and attract a different, lower skill set than BPO jobs. Many people working in BPO in Nicaragua are highly skilled including lawyers and engineers. These people do not normally consider working for hotels and boat tours.
We see the potential in tourism as a training ground for English speakers particularly in communities along the Caribbean coast including Blue Fields (45,000 inhabitants), where English is widely spoken. As opportunities in Managua grow we are seeing migration from other parts of the country. Nicaragua is a relatively small country so distances from the capital to other population centers are not so great.