Media reports out of the Miami trade talks this week will no doubt feature images of our carrot-topped lead negotiator, Robert Zoellick, locked in toothy handshakes with Latin American counterparts. Insiders say the man known as Zoellick the Zealot came to Miami for negotiations on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas determined to avoid the humiliation he suffered two months ago when World Trade Organization talks collapsed in Cancún, Mexico.
But the outcome of Miami will also represent a colossal failure for the Bush Administration. After nine years of insisting that all thirty-four countries must sign on to a comprehensive agreement covering nine issue areas, the US team here has reportedly conceded to pressure from Brazil and other nations to significantly hollow out the FTAA.
Meanwhile, activists from around the hemisphere have been doing their best to build a movement for social change in the face of thousands of robocops, whatever the future of the trade deal. It hasn’t been easy. Miami officials have enlisted forty different law enforcement agencies to show they know how to maintain order. For the first three days of the week, the dozens of teach-ins held throughout downtown Miami were surrounded by cops on boats, bikes and horses, which (no joke) sport their own riot helmets with plexiglass faceshields. On Tuesday, a team of eight well-armed officers visited a workshop on free trade and militarism in a church basement organized by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group with a long history of pacifism.
In many of these venues, ordinary people are struggling to work through the uncomfortable issues that in a less mature phase of the movement would have been left unspoken. For example, the trade union movement has often tap-danced around the tensions between international solidarity efforts and the needs of a crisis-plagued American steel industry. But on Wednesday afternoon, Indiana steelworker Allen Long made a bold plea for cross-border cooperation before an audience of about 1,000 union steelworkers, including hundreds wearing American flag bandanas. Long, who worked nearly thirty years at Bethlehem Steel before losing his job and pension when the company went bankrupt, told the audience about going to Brazil on a worker exchange. “I learned from the inside about their union struggles and fights against the FTAA. And you know what? They’re the same as ours. Free trade is not the fault of the workers. What we need is the United Steelworkers of the Americas, instead of the United Steelworkers of America.”
Across town, Todd Leake, who farms 2,300 acres of wheat and beans near Grand Forks, North Dakota, was trying to build similar bridges on agriculture. This, of course, is the issue that has caused the greatest conflict in regional trade talks. The headline has been that Brazil and other nations are demanding that the United States slash its massive domestic farm subsidies. The debate has generated the impression of a sharp divide between rich farmers in the North and poor farmers in the South.
When I asked Leake about this, he responded candidly: “Well, relatively speaking, we are rich. And we have had a policy of dumping cheap products on poor countries. But the reality is that all these subsidies haven’t helped family farmers in the United States that much either.” Leake, who is 42, says that during his lifetime the number of family farmers in his area has dropped about 75 percent, with a devastating impact on rural North Dakota communities and institutions.