L.A. Mayor Heads to South America as Panama Canal Project Nears Completion

The Port of L.Å. is currently going under a major renovation. | Photo: madlyinlovewithlife/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is in Chile today as the head of a delegation of city, port, and airport officials and business executives.

The port and airport departments are picking up the $252,000 travel tab for city employees while non-city workers are paying their own way, according to the mayor's office. The trade mission to Chile, Brazil, and Colombia began Saturday.

The trip, which ends Dec. 3, is being billed as an effort to market the expansion of the Port of Los Angeles ahead of the expected opening of a widened Panama Canal in 2014. The canal expansion is expected to make East Coast ports more competitive -- to the detriment of trade in and out of L.A.

The Port of Los Angeles is in the midst of a $1.2 billion effort to renovate terminals, increase rail capacity and deepen the main channel to allow larger ships in and out of the port.

The delegation also hopes to advertise the city as a tourist destination.

"The future of Los Angeles is tied closely to our neighbors in South America. As we strengthen and build our local economy, we must leverage our assets in this global marketplace to create jobs here in Los Angeles," Villaraigosa said before leaving Los Angeles.

"With two previous trade missions, we worked to develop strong economic ties with Asia. Now, we're going to strengthen our relationships in South America to increase investment, trade, and tourism in L.A."

The last Los Angeles mayor to travel to South America was Tom Bradley in 1985.

It will be Villaraigosa's second international trip in the last year. He traveled in December to China, South Korea, and Japan.

The mayor has made at least 29 trips out of the city this year that required him to name an acting mayor.

Aside from one personal vacation, he has traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for a federal transportation bill, to various U.S. cities in his former role as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and in recent months to election battleground states to campaign for President Barack Obama's re-election.

The delegation will be in Santiago, Chile today, then travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Tuesday. It will make stops in Brasilia on November 28 and Sao Paulo on November 29 before going to Bogota, Colombia, where the delegation will stay from December 1-3.

The trip is necessary to compete with other states and countries seeking to trade in South America, Villaraigosa's office said. Seven states, four government organizations, and the city of Houston have sent officials to the region to court trade and business partners over the last year.

The economies of the three destination countries are all growing faster than the U.S. economy, according to Carlos Valderrama, senior vice president of global initiatives at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and a Los Angeles Regional Export Council board member.

"This growth offers tremendous opportunities for L.A.'s small and medium businesses, especially in markets where the U.S. has Free Trade Agreements, like Chile and Colombia," Valderrama said in a statement issued through the mayor's office.

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