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Thousands defy police to protest FTAA trade deal
Showdown in Miami

November 21, 2003 | Page 16

LEE SUSTAR reports from Miami on the protests against the bosses' free trade summit in Miami.

BARRICADES AND arrests in the streets, bribes and threats in the suites. Those are Washington's tactics as trade ministers from 34 countries of the Western Hemisphere gathered in Miami to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) November 17-21--and tens of thousands of union members and global justice activists mobilized to oppose them.

With oversized steel fences surrounding the elite Inter-Continental Hotel, police reportedly arrested several activists simply for passing out leaflets downtown--two days before the first protests even began. Anyone who police suspected of being a protester was subject to being ordered to sit in a police car and show their ID--or be hauled off to jail if they didn't have it.

New city ordinances restricting demonstrations have not only banned protests near the Inter-Continental, but outlawed small groups from gathering in the streets. Miami Police Chief John Timoney--who headed the Philadelphia police department when cops cracked down on protesters during the 2000 Republican National Convention--has promised to haul anyone arrested to an undisclosed location.

"We're seeing an overwhelming establishment of a police state here in Miami," Lisa Fithian, a key organizer of the demonstrations, told Socialist Worker. "At one meeting, when we asked, 'Please, can you commit to not using lethal weapons, chemical weapons?' Timoney's main field commander basically said, 'We reserve the right to use anything we need, including and up to lethal force.' And he said it several times."

The protests against the FTAA will include a permitted labor march of tens of thousands of union members November 20, with thousands of activists planning to take part in civil disobedience and direct action protests as well. But under new laws passed by the city council, literally anything that can be thrown is banned. This will give the notoriously corrupt and violent Miami cops license to arrest protesters at will.

Local activists have fought such measures, protesting in the city council and filing lawsuits to try to overturn them. To build local support and highlight the impact of free trade agreements and corporate globalization in South Florida, a coalition of activist groups known as Root Cause organized a three-day march from Fort Lauderdale to Miami.

The coalition includes a South Florida group, Lake Worth Global Justice Group, founded in 1999 following the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle, when 40,000 union members, environmentalists and activists protested despite a police crackdown. "We came back and said, 'Okay, we've got to localize global justice issues, and that's what we've been doing ever since,'" said Melodie Malfa, an activist in the group.

Root Cause also includes the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworkers' organization fighting for the rights of migrant Mexican farmworkers who pick tomatoes for the company that supplies Taco Bell and other food industry giants. Many of those workers were displaced by the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which flooded Mexico with cheap U.S. agricultural imports. "This march is to challenge the idea that the local community isn't affected by an agreement like the FTAA," Lucas Benitez, of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said.

At the convergence center in Miami--a gathering place for protesters at an unused warehouse--activists made puppets, planned actions and served meals to those arriving from across the country. Union delegations--including an estimated 1,500 members of the United Steelworkers of America--poured into town for the big labor march set for November 20. Labor leaders from throughout the Americas--including Bolivian union leader Oscar Olivera, who played a key role in the protests that ousted a president in October--were also on hand for meetings hosted by the AFL-CIO.

Meanwhile, a range of non-governmental organizations and groups organized teach-ins on trade and social justice issues to expose the corporate agenda driving the FTAA. The protests could be the biggest for the U.S. global justice movement since 40,000 marched against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle in 1999 and stood up to a vicious police crackdown.

The movement suffered a setback following the September 11, 2001 attacks, as many groups pulled back from protests. But the free-market policies of the "Washington consensus" are in crisis--highlighted by the collapse of the WTO summit in Cancún, Mexico in September. Protests in Cancún highlighted the resilience of global justice activism--and Miami shows the potential for the movement's revival in the U.S.

Washington's model for the FTAA is the NAFTA accord with Canada and Mexico, which went beyond trade to give corporations and investors the right to challenge and overturn local laws, such as environmental regulations. The U.S. plan for the FTAA would go still further by giving corporations--predominately U.S. ones--exclusive control over patents and intellectual property throughout the Americas, while compelling the privatization of government services.

But Brazil, the leading economy in Latin America, has refused to agree to these issues as long as the U.S. maintains agricultural subsidies that block Brazilian imports. So even before the official FTAA summit began, deputy trade ministers announced an agreement to disagree on the core issues of the proposed treaty.

At a meeting of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, a group of NGOs from throughout the Americas, Alejandro Villamar of the Mexican Free Trade Action Network speculated that the deal would result in an "FTAA Lite"--a deal that would lower tariffs and barriers to trade, but exclude the openings on investment and services that U.S corporations demand.

But that's no reason to be complacent, Villamar argued. "These [trade] agreements don't take into account the big gap between our countries, and they don't take into account our social demands," he said. "The FTAA only reflects the interests of the biggest industries, not the interests of the people."

Mass opposition to free-market policies--known as neoliberalism--has challenged the leaders of major countries in Latin America. Before last month's uprising in Bolivia, protests drove out presidents in Argentina, Peru and Ecuador and opened the way to election victories for critics of the free market, including Brazilian President Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers Party, who took office early this year.

With Brazil serving as co-chair of the FTAA along with the U.S., Lula is trying to carry out a balancing act. He's already bowed to demands by Western bankers and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to impose pro-market policies, but he's trying to avoid surrender to Washington--for fear of provoking mass resistance at home.

"For the countries that have adopted this model, through the IMF, for instance, the real-life results are causing huge uprisings," Lori Wallach of Public Citizen told Socialist Worker. "People are not governable under this system, because it's killing them."

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