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.
Leake exchanged ideas with Mexican peasants and other Latin Americans at a workshop organized by the National Family Farm Coalition on how to forge a more sensible farm policy for the Americas. Leake agreed with one of the speakers, Peruvian Daniel de la Torre Ugarte, who said the solution is supply management. The US government used to prop up prices by paying farmers to keep land fallow, setting floor prices for some commodities and building stock reserves. But in the 1990s this was replaced with a free-market approach that has resulted in massive surpluses and plummeting world market prices. The US Congress has come through with billions of dollars in supports to partially insulate American farmers. But in poorer nations, governments don’t have that option, and the result has been the destruction of small farms across the Americas.
Laudemir André Müller, of the Brazilian Agrarian Development Ministry,attended a meeting organized by the Hemispheric Social Alliance outside the security perimeter on Wednesday night between activists and representatives of the Brazilian, Argentine, Venezuelan and Bolivian governments. He said he wants Americans to understand that the Brazilian government is not opposed to all subsidies. “All countries should have very strong policies to develop agriculture and industry. In this case, domestic supports are all right if they support all farmers. The problem is when domestic supports bring about a big increase in production and when this production goes to international markets where it pushes down prices and creates poverty in the poor countries. In Brazil our only protection is tariffs, and the US government wants us to give those up. That is the imbalance in the negotiations.”
As of Wednesday night, Brazilian negotiators were cautiously pleased about the course of the negotiations. The concession made by the US government to allow a two-tier approach to the FTAA–with one tier of mandatory obligations and a second, voluntary tier around more contentious issues, such as investment and intellectual property rights–means the United States may not win its demand that countries must sign on to agreements on rules for all trading areas or else forfeit certain market-access privileges.
Guilherme Cassel, Brazil’s Vice Minister for Agrarian Development, told a standing-room crowd of activists at the open meeting that “this agreement is not a dream. Anyone in this room could have written a better one. But for the first time the path that the FTAA has been on for nine years is blocked. The new approach has elements of flexibility that respect the differences between our countries and allows autonomy. We haven’t had a victory or a defeat. But we’ve won time.” Argentina’s Vice Minister for Integration, Eduardo Sigal, followed up by encouraging the assembled activists: “Now is the time to multiply your efforts so the people of the Americas have their interests defended.”
Cassel also admitted that the Brazilian government is operating under extreme pressure, which was heightened on Tuesday when Zoellick announced the initiation of bilateral trade negotiations with six countries (Colombia, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador and Panama). Zoellick’s bilateral blast was reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s efforts to build a coalition of the willing in support of the Iraq war. When Administration officials met resistance within the UN Security Council, they rounded up the more vulnerable countries one at a time to give the impression of international consensus.
In the FTAA, as with Iraq, they’re not fooling anybody, especially not the US business community. The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers both issued statements expressing their concerns about the shift away from a comprehensive FTAA.
While activists are encouraged by the failure of US negotiators to achieve the NAFTA-style FTAA of their dreams, they are, as of this writing, facing heightened intimidation by the assembled security army. The major demonstration is planned for Thursday afternoon, but the city has shut down public transportation and roads leading to the rally site, and reports of arrests and beatings are starting to filter in. The irony is that the Miami government’s over-the-top security effort is driven by its desire to win the honor of hosting the FTAA secretariat, a secretariat that looks increasingly unlikely ever to exist.