(ENS) MIAMI --
is tight as thousands of delegates and protesters gather in Miami for the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit, which officially opens Thursday, Nov. 20. Trade ministers from the 34 democratic nations in the Caribbean and North, South and Central America are holding talks at the Hotel Inter-Continental aimed at reducing trade barriers in the region by 2005.
Opponents say the trade deal will mean the loss of U.S. jobs and environmental protections while corporate profits soar.
Protest organizers are planning a march through parts of downtown Miami tomorrow afternoon. The route will be lined with police, who have already set up more than a dozen checkpoints throughout the downtown area, blocked off two entrances from Interstate 95 to downtown Miami and set up a vehicle free zone around downtown's federal government buildings.
Some 300 demonstrators marched into Miami Tuesday night concluding a three day, 34 mile march from Oakland Park organized by members of three South Florida grassroots organizations -- Power U, Miami Workers Center and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers -- known collectively as Root Cause.
According to Root Cause, the 34 mile trek represented one mile for every country resisting the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which they say will hurt poor communities and communities of color throughout the Americas. They were met by long lines of bicycle police, platoons of riot police in full gear, and police on horses patrolling the streets. No arrests were made.
Inside the conference rooms, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who head the U.S. delegation, announced Tuesday that the United States intends to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and a separate free trade agreement with Panama.
Zoellick said plans for expansion of the Panama Canal will create new procurement opportunities for U.S. firms, which he said already play an important role in supporting the canal.
Zoellick expects the Andean and Panama agreements to create momentum that will shift the entire hemisphere in the direction of free trade when taken together with the U.S.-Chile agreement concluded in September and others now in negotiation with the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.
The most senior trade agreement in the hemisphere is the 10 year old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
"Different countries have different interests and willingness to move towards full state of the art free trade agreements, but by moving forward free trade among the five of us, just as we have with NAFTA and with Chile and with Central America, and the Dominican Republic, we will move" toward free trade in the entire Western Hemisphere, Zoellick predicted.
The United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua began negotiations in January and have held eight rounds of talks, one in each Central American country, as well as three in the United States. Chief negotiators met for two days last week in Washington, D.C., where the ninth and final round is scheduled to begin December 8.
Not all critics of the free trade agreements are in the streets of Miami, some are in the U.S. Congress. Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri, a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, said Monday that the first free trade agreement signed by the United States has not been good for American workers. "Today as we celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the passage of the NAFTA trade agreement we learn that we have lost nearly 900,000 American jobs, 13,000 jobs in South Carolina alone, as a direct result of NAFTA."
"These are not only manufacturing job losses, they are high tech jobs which were expected to be the promising jobs of the 21st century. As I predicted," Gephardt said, "these trade agreements have resulted in a race to the bottom where corporations in every sector of our economy move around the globe looking for the cheapest available labor, abandoning American workers and manipulating workers abroad."
"Ten years of NAFTA have meant 10 years of net losses for American working families," says Robert Scott, author of "The High Cost of 'Free' Trade," a new report released Monday to coincide with the FTAA summit.
"With the flow of jobs and capital out of the United States, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have experienced a net loss of jobs over the decade," says Scott, who works with the Washington based Economic Policy Institute.
Workers from Immokalee, a South Florida community with many Central and South American residents, have come to Miami to march in protest of the FTAA tomorrow. Lucas Benitez, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, says, "Thousands of us who find ourselves in Florida have been obligated to leave our countries because of the consequences of the free trade agreements that have flooded our countries' markets with cheap agricultural products from the United States and Canada, making it impossible for us to sell the crops that we have grown for generations."
"Every day we wake up at 4AM to go beg a day's work in the central parking lot in town," Benitez says. "We may find work harvesting tomatoes today, picking oranges tomorrow, and doing maintenance at a golf course the next day, or we might not find any work at all. We earn subpoverty wages, with no access to benefits, and we are denied the right to overtime and to organize on the job."
"South Florida is a prime example of environmental racism and the FTAA promises to make a horrendous situation intolerably worse," Benitez says. "In Dade County, people of color are three times as likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals as whites. Latinos and African Americans have the highest lifetime cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants, especially if their income is under $25,000."
Increased trade in South Florida will mean more truck traffic, more noise and diesel pollution, more water pollution, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers warns.
"Dade has four times as many Superfund sites per square mile than the rest of Florida, with most of these in communities of color," Benitez says. "Dade has also has one of the highest levels of inhaled mercury, benzene and diesel particulates that cause cancer and other degenerative ailments. All of Allapattah and most of Overtown are brownfields, contaminated with petroleum, lead, mercury, dioxin, arsenic, and benzene."
Other critics are dressing up as dolphins for the protest march in Miami Thursday. They say that once hemispheric free trade is in place, other U.S. environmental protections will go the way of a strong dolphin-safe tuna law. U.S. law forbidding the import of tuna caught by ensnaring and killing dolphins in tuna nets has twice been ruled an illegal trade restriction. As a result, the United States weakened its dolphin protection law in 1997.
"FTAA negotiations must embrace, instead of eviscerate, protection of wildlife, their ecosystems, and the humane treatment of animals," said Ben White, special projects coordinator of the Animal Welfare Institute. "No treaty organization should have the power to erase animal welfare laws enacted by democratically elected governments."
Local and global activists demonstrated at an Office Depot store in downtown Miami today to protest the company's forest policy. Forest protection organizations have been critical of Office Depot's policy since it was released on Earth Day 2003 because they say it fails to provide protection for endangered forests across North and South America like Canada's Boreal forest, the Amazon, and the forests of the Southern United States.
The protest is part of the larger global justice movement to stop the formation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which demonstrators say would accelerate logging in the Americas. The free trade agreements would eliminate tariffs on wood products and restricte the ability of sovereign governments to enact and enforce laws that protect their forested lands, they say.
Kelly Sheehan, National Organizer for Dogwood Alliance, said, "With the global environment increasingly threatened by free trade agreements such as the FTAA, the fate of some of the world's most endangered forests hinges on corporations adopting strong policies to ensure their protection."
But Zoellick says the United States is "confident" that the region can come together to fulfill the FTAA vision of a "partnership for development and prosperity: democracy, free trade and sustainable development in the Americas."
"Much of the protest in Miami will be dismissed as representing a fringe element, but many of the issues the protesters raise have found an audience in the United States and elsewhere," Timothy Hauser, the U.S. Commerce Department's deputy under secretary for international trade said last week.
In November 10 remarks at an Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, Hauser said, "It is opposition to expanding trade that each of us will have to work hard to overcome. We will not let [the protests] dissuade us from achieving" President George W. Bush's "free-trade vision."
The 34 FTAA countries are: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
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