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 in 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 last night, a day ahead of schedule.
The ministers’ final declaration essentially lays out a road map for a free-trade non-agreement. 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, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, complained that “this is not what we want and we have some 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 allow Brazil, South America’s largest economy and arguably the most restrictive on foreign investment, to opt out of regulations that would proscribe its ability to regulate foreign investors.
When they decided to adjourn early, trade ministers may also have been considering the interests of the City of Miami, which 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, and local businesses and residents are wondering whether the government overreacted.
The economic costs are particularly questionable given that Miami police overestimated the number of protesters by as much as 90 percent. Law enforcement claimed that as many as 100,000 demonstrators were likely to converge on the city, whereas the Miami Herald quoted actual police estimates on Thursday as somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000. Rally organizers put the number closer to 30,000, although turnout would have been far higher had police not blocked nearly ninety buses carrying 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 since the September 11 attacks. 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. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney also proudly announced that the voices of people around the country would be expressed when ministers received a half-million ballots against the FTAA that were collected nationwide over the past year. (This is in addition to several million more collected in other countries of the hemisphere.)
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 on Wednesday night, the rally yesterday and an informal reception last night. “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.” He urged people to make a real commitment to social change instead of being like “the people who buy Sandinista by The Clash and feel like they’ve done their bit.”
Of course the images that attracted the media were those of the clashes between protesters and the massive police presence. But even these were fleeting. One local TV station anchor excitedly cut to a correspondent who had reported “some movement.” But when the cameras focused in, the reporter was standing in the middle of a deserted street and, like a disappointed wildlife tour guide, could only say, “Well, the anarchists were here a minute ago.”
Medics for the direct action protesters reported about 100 injuries from tear gas and rubber bullets fired by the police. Law enforcement reported at least 141 arrests over the course of the week. Some were clear cases of misuse of authority. For example, police detained one New Jersey teenager for riding a bicycle downtown in the middle of the night and refusing to tell officers what he was doing. His bail was set at $20,000.
US trade negotiators are 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.