It was as though US and Brazilian trade negotiators feared that if they spent one more minute in Miami, the fragile image of harmony they have struggled to project would shatter into a million pieces. Thus the thirty-four trade ministers gathered here for talks on a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas were hustled to a photo-op closing of their meeting on November 20, a day ahead of schedule.
The ministers’ final declaration essentially lays out a road map for a free-trade nonagreement. Caving in to pressure from Brazil and other nations, US officials agreed to allow countries to pick and choose which parts of the final FTAA they will sign on to, in addition to some minimal, as yet undetermined, mandatory obligations.
If the reaction of the big-business community is any barometer, the new “FTAA à la carte” approach is good news for free-trade critics. Frank Vargo, a vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, complained that “this is not what we want and we have serious concerns.” NAM members had been salivating over the prospect of an FTAA based on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which granted new protections for international investors and stripped the power of governments to impose conditions on foreign investment. But the hollowed-out FTAA approach agreed to in Miami will likely allow Brazil, South America’s largest economy, to opt out of regulations that would weaken its ability to regulate foreign investors.
The decision to adjourn early may also have been driven by a desire to escape the clouds of tear gas and general mayhem in the streets of Miami. Some 2,500 law enforcement personnel were deployed to control a crowd that was overwhelmingly peaceful. Even demonstrators who attended the permitted rally were assaulted with rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets. Medics for the protesters reported about 100 injuries, including some serious head wounds. Police arrested more than 200 people over the course of the week, and there were numerous cases of clear misuse of authority. Early in the week, for example, police detained a New Jersey teenager for riding a bicycle downtown in the middle of the night and refusing to tell them what he was doing. His bail was set at $20,000.
The ACLU is gathering evidence of police brutality, and the United Steelworkers of America has called for a Congressional investigation into whether the Miami police violated protesters’ rights.
Local residents are also questioning whether the city government overreacted. Miami budgeted some $12 million for costs related to the meeting, most of it for security. Downtown Miami was shuttered for most of the five-day event.
The economic costs are particularly questionable, given that Miami police overestimated the number of protesters by a factor of ten. Law enforcement claimed that as many as 100,000 demonstrators were likely to converge on the city, whereas post-rally police crowd estimates were between 8,000 and 10,000. Rally organizers put the number closer to 25,000, although turnout would have been higher had police not blocked nearly ninety busescarrying retirees from entering the downtown area to participate in the permitted rally and march.
Nevertheless, the broad coalition of groups, including the AFL-CIO, Citizens Trade Campaign, Jobs with Justice, the Miami Workers Center and others that came together for Miami were successful in pulling off the first major anti-corporate globalization demonstration in the United States since 9/11. Despite a difficult organizing environment (local Spanish-language TV was particularly hostile to the protesters), crowds for most events all week were large and spirited.
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg was a stalwart presence throughout the week, performing with an ensemble of blues, hip-hop, country and folk musicians at a People’s Gala, the rally and an informal reception. “You can’t change the world by singing songs,” Bragg told a group of protesters at the Doubletree Hotel. “But hopefully we can encourage and inspire the activism that can.”
At the rally, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney also proudly announced that the voices of people around the country would be expressed when trade ministers received a half-million ballots against the FTAA, collected nationwide over the past year. (This was in addition to several million more collected in other countries of the hemisphere.)
US trade negotiators were no doubt relieved to be heading back to Washington, far away from their uppity developing-country counterparts and a global justice movement that has regained its momentum.