American Express Co. hopes to pull off in Latin America and the Caribbean what it accomplished in Europe by filing antitrust complaints against Visa International with local governments.
Tuesday, American Express filed complaints against Visa in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. In Puerto Rico, American Express has asked antitrust authorities to open an investigation against Visa.
After American Express filed a complaint earlier this year, the European competition commissioner said a Visa policy barring banks from issuing American Express cards would be unacceptable.
However, American Express will have a much harder time prevailing over Visa in Latin America because it appears the card association is prepared to fight this battle behind the scenes.
American Express intentionally filed the complaints several weeks before Visa's regional Latin America-Caribbean board meeting, scheduled for mid- October, when Visa reportedly is to vote on whether to adopt a rule banning its members in the region from issuing American Express cards.
"We want a head start," said Thomas O. Ryder, president of American Express International, "so that Visa understands that we are not going to sit back."
James F. Partridge, Visa's Latin America-Caribbean region president, called American Express' strategy a "waste of time and money."
The Visa executive said his board does not plan to discuss in October the possibility of imposing a rule, which is what American Express most fears.
"Because they don't confront the issue," said Mr. Ryder, "it makes this harder for us to fight legally."
Mr. Ryder said he believes Visa will ignore the issue publicly but privately tell its members the association strongly disapproves of alliances with American Express.
"It is possible that Visa does not have to make its rule formal," said Jorge Besosa, senior vice president in charge of consumer lending at Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, the island's largest issuer of credit cards.
"Let's think about the consequences," he said. "You stand to lose more on existing business (by angering Visa) than on any new business decision."
Mr. Besosa said he believes most bankers in his region are loyal to Visa and MasterCard because of long-term relationships.
If Banco Popular considered issuing American Express cards, Mr. Besosa said, it would consult with Visa first. "We owe them that deference," he said.
American Express asserted that bankers in the Latin America-Caribbean region would not support a restrictive Visa rule but that they are reluctant to work with American Express because the issue remains unresolved.
Also remaining unresolved is who will lead American Express in the region. This month, Robert V. Sicina, who had been president of American Express' Latin America-Caribbean region for five months, abruptly resigned.
Executives heading American Express' operations in Brazil and Mexico have taken over temporarily.