A Latin American Footwear Congress was held in Medellin just before the International Footwear and Leather Show, July 11-13, which could well result in an ambitious, long term strategy for the marketing of footwear and leathergoods throughout the Americas.

The main protagonist behind the Inter-American integration of the leather, footwear and leathergoods sector is Dr Antonio Jose Londono, current executive president of ACICAM (Asociacion Colombiana de Industriales del Calzado, el Cuero y sus Manufacturas) and president for 2001-2004 of the new umbrella organisation for the Latin American associations.

This new organisation is called OPICAM (Organizacion Panamericana de Industriales del Calzado, el Cuero y sus Manufacturas) with Raimundo Moscato as first vice-president (currently president of the Venezuelan Footwear Chamber CAVENIC) and Calixto Penaloza as second vice-president (currently president of the Ecuatorian Footwear Association ASOFACAL). Other national associations that have submitted letters of intent to affiliate are from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Brazil.

Opicam’s role is not limited to either technological innovations or defending the participating member countries against the devastating influx of Asian footwear which has decimated the footwear industries of almost all the smaller Latin American nations – the exceptions being up to now Brazil and Mexico. Latest statistics available demonstrate that Asian footwear is still making inroads especially into the footwear markets of the Andean Pact countries. Sources indicate that 38% of footwear sold in Colombia is contraband, with comparable percentages of 40% in Ecuador and 41% in Venezuela.

Opicam will not be limited to defending members against contraband footwear by trying to implement effective, standardised customs controls throughout member nations but will have a more proactive role in negotiating entry into the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas or ALCA Area de Libre Comercio de las Americas in Spanish), due to come on stream in 2005.

Opicam will operate on two fronts: firstly to protect the home markets against the millions of pairs of shoes entering the member countries illegally which will help create jobs and boost the GDP and, after shoring up the situation on the home front, push northwards and expand into the highly sought after US market.

The OPICAM initiative must be applauded due to its ambitious long term scope yet there are many cynics in the region who cannot envisage such all encompassing Latin American cooperation. A prime example of unfettered free trade is the impasse in Mercosur with Brazilian footwear almost overrunning the Argentinan, Uruguayan and Paraguayan markets – mainly due to the 250% devaluation of the real eighteen months ago and the huge productive capacity and efficiency of the Brazilian shoe factories.