Free-Trade Flop?

Anti-globalization protesters head to Miami for a summit that’s already slipping.

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Officers from 40 law enforcement agencies are already on hand, ready to greet thousands of protesters as trade ministers gather in Miami for this week’s Free Trade Area of the Americas gathering.

Following last summer’s meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, activists have been mobilizing another political showdown in Miami. Puppets, stilt-walkers, drummers and throngs of young people have characterized such demonstrations against free-trade economics. While mostly young activists are already in Miami building puppets — which a Miami court almost banned this week — other contingents have promised to turn out large numbers. Labor Notes magazine reports that protest organizers expect as many as 25,000 trade unionists to join the demonstrations. Manuel Pastor and Tony LoPresti write in the Nation that the anti-FTAA demonstration is an opportunity for Miami to build bridges across its deep racial divide. A three day march is planned from Fort Lauderdale to Miami, that will culminate in a Unity Ceremony where bring Haitians, Latinos, African-Americans, whites and Native Americans pledge to support each others’ struggles.

While critics of the protests, cite the property destruction and the huge bill from law enforcement agencies, Naomi Klein writes in The Nation that demonstrators understand the deeper perils of unleashed free trade.

“War because privatization and deregulation kill — by pushing up prices on necessities like water and medicines and pushing down prices on raw commodities like coffee, making small farms unsustainable. War because those who resist and ‘refuse to disappear,” as the Zapatistas say, are routinely arrested, beaten and even killed. War because when this kind of low-intensity repression fails to clear the path to corporate liberation, the real wars begin.

The global antiwar protests that surprised the world on February 15 grew out of the networks built by years of globalization activism, from Indymedia to the World Social Forum. And despite attempts to keep the movements separate, their only future lies in the convergence represented by Cancun. Past movements have tried to fight wars without confronting the economic interests behind them, or to win economic justice without confronting military power. Today’s activists, already experts at following the money, aren’t making the same mistake.”

But with or without a more cohesive protest movement the outcome is to be expected: police and demonstrators will clash while little is accomplished in the FTAA meetings. The biggest stumbling block is expected to crop up between the United States and Brazil — the world’s two biggest producers of orange juice. The Bush administration has refused to meet two of Brazil’s demands, cutting domestic farm subsidies and changing anti-dumping laws. Brazil has also refused to increase opportunities for international investors and government contracting. Brazil’s meat and orange juice producers hope to export more to the U.S., and American producers are obviously opposed to. Florida citrus growers and other farmers fear being undercut by their Brazilian competitors, who could flood the U.S. market with cheap food exports. Many Latin American countries are demanding the U.S. cut its large subsidies to domestic farmers and lower its high tariffs in the name of actual free trade. Joao Sampaio, president of the Brazilian Rural Society, knows who stands to benefit from such a deal. “It won’t happen quickly but if the U.S. starts to open its market then Brazilian orange juice and meat exporters would be the main initial beneficiaries,” he said.

With such high stakes it’s not expected that either the U.S. or Brazil will compromise, a move that could significantly stall the meetings. A Canadian official criticized the Brazilian position and accused the nation of narrow-mindedness..

“The difficulties (with Brazil’s position) are over the FTAA’s ability to settle a world problem…I think Brazil sees this as a dialogue with the United States, but there are 32 other countries at the table, afterall, and the trade relationships in the hemisphere can’t just be boiled down to relations with the United States.”

Still, it’s not just agricultural workers who are protesting the creation of the FTAA. Rob McKenzie, president of United Auto Workers Local 879 in St. Paul, Minnesota, explains that autoworkers see the FTAA as a real threat to their livelihoods. “People are concerned, not just about their own jobs, but about the future for their kids…There’s a high level of anxiety,” he said. McKenzie’s fear reflects the reality of the last ten years since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. As the Workday Minnesota reports, the UAW lost 100,000 members since NAFTA came on the scene.

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