As thousands demonstrate: 'Free trade' deal stalls in Miami

MIAMI – While the Bush administration had hoped last week’s ministerial meeting here would pave the way for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement in 2004, giving U.S. corporations a green light to further plunder the hemisphere, what it ran into instead was resistance from developing nations and thousands of demonstrators in the streets.

Under the slogan of “No way – FTAA,” about 25,000 people from 40 states traveled to the FTAA ministerial meeting Nov. 18-20 to protest the proposed “free trade” agreement. The demonstrators included thousands of trade unionists and activists from environmental, peace, religious, student, farmer and farm worker groups who came to Miami to exercise their constitutional right to free speech.

The unionists and anti-FTAA activists almost immediately found themselves confronted by paramilitary tactics and illegal searches and detentions.

“Trade ministers were met with a red carpet. Our members – the steelworkers, the teachers, the machinists, the auto workers, the retirees – and our coalition partners were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray,” Thea Lee, chief international economist, AFL-CIO told the press on Nov. 21.

Esta Nette, an 83-year-old retired organizer for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, told the World, “I came down from New Jersey on the bus because FTAA called by any name is still NAFTA.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the United States has sustained a net loss of 879,280 jobs since 1993 as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA has destroyed huge numbers of jobs and driven down living standards in Canada and Mexico, as well. The FTAA would extend the same type of trade agreement to cover 800 million people in 34 countries.

Beset by a lack of consensus even before the talks opened, the FTAA ministerial meeting adjourned a day ahead of schedule with a declaration that Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch described as “The beginning of the end of FTAA … scaling back, punting hard decisions.” The talks left the contentious issues of agricultural tariffs and subsidies and government contracts for later negotiations to avoid an embarrassing Cancun-like collapse of talks.

Deborah James of Global Exchange, an anti-globalization group, said, “No matter how U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick tries to spin the story, it should be clear that ‘FTAA-Lite’ emerging from Miami is a major setback for the U.S. and the giant corporations behind the so-called ‘free trade’ agenda.”

The U.S. tried to salvage its corporate agenda by announcing bilateral talks with Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama and Peru, some of the most impoverished countries in the hemisphere. The Hemispheric Social Alliance, representing labor, farmers, environmental and indigenous peoples, responded to the announcement by saying “bilateralism puts many countries at a greater disadvantage in their direct negotiations with the U.S.”

The drive for bilateral agreements is even more dangerous than the original proposed agreement because they can more easily ignore issues of national sovereignty, environmental protections, and labor rights.

Andy Frye of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) from Oklahoma, who worked in an iron foundry until it moved to Mexico as a result of NAFTA, told the World, “In the two years since the plant shutdown, never a week goes by when I don’t read in the paper of a new home foreclosure or divorce in the town paper.” In 2001, before the plant closed, unemployment was 3 percent and now it’s 11 percent.

The largest march during the three-day activities was kicked off by a rally in Bayfront Park. But most marchers didn’t get in, because they were met by riot police, helicopters circling overhead with Armored Personnel Carriers and water cannons. Buses were stopped en route on Interstate 95, with some turned back.

March permits negotiated by the AFL-CIO and local community groups were arbitrarily cancelled, causing chaos for thousands who had come to voice their opposition. Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, told the rally, “Thousands are being detained and prevented from coming in and marching with us. We want them to know our voice will not be silenced. Let our people in.” The crowd began chanting, “Let our people in.”

Despite the paramilitary atmosphere and repression, union members stood in solidarity with other anti-globalization activists. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney paid a visit on Wednesday to a Welcome Center housing the direct action activists and FTAA Independent Media Center to thank the participants for their solidarity and participation in this historic struggle.

Leo Gerard, president of the USWA, called upon the marchers to keep the struggle for justice going. “When we leave this march and go back home we must make sure that the people know what kind of repression we suffered at the hands of the police. … They can try to stop us today, but no one can keep the ideas from bursting free. We will succeed.”

The author can reached at jleblanc@pww.org.

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