MIAMI — From Mexican sweatshops and peasant farms in the Amazon to Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of the United States, protesters have come here to warn that plans for hemisphere-wide free trade would lead to greater misery and suffering in Latino communities.
"I can tell you that if Mexican workers aren't already slaves of the multinational corporations, we're 99.9% there," said Israel Monroy of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a group dedicated to the special factories created in Mexico to assemble export goods.
"Family farmers everywhere, from north to south, not just Brazil, are living in crisis," said Maria de Fatima, a representative of Brazil's Landless Rural Workers Movement, which seeks agrarian reform. "As we import cheap, poor-quality foodstuffs, the multinational companies that invade our countries open the doors for the bankruptcy of thousands of farmers. During the past six years, 2.4 million farmers were expelled from the land."
In stark counterpoint to the official negotiations in Miami this week among the United States and 33 other countries on creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, a project President Bush has embraced as a "great vision," a motley collection of activists, academics and private citizens has assembled on the other side of the police barricades to describe the painful costs of foreign investment and trade liberalization on the people of Latin America.
Far from everyone has been a winner, they say. Local agriculture has been devastated by cheap imported corn or genetically modified crops. New factories have fouled the environment, some with deadly chemicals. And when populations lose their traditional means of livelihood, they become a floating army of potential migrants who may end up on U.S. streets.
Florida Highway Patrol officers wearing gas masks ride towards a crowd gathered at security fences near where ministers of the Free Trade Area of the Americas are meeting in Miami November 20, 2003. Law enforcement agencies expect thousands of demonstrators to protest against the FTAA. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
"In Guatemala, people now live in cardboard huts, without water or light," said Juan Garcia, a Guatemalan who works with Jobs With Justice, an activist organization, in Providence, R.I. "They have to pick in the garbage in garbage bins to find something to eat."
Driven to despair, Garcia said, entire families from his Central American homeland are entering the United States illegally.
"When they come here, they think they will be coming to a different life, but they come to the same life, to live under bridges, because what free trade does is push immigrants toward here," Garcia said. "It creates a surplus of workers, it creates poverty, creates crime, creates drug addiction, creates prostitution."
The official viewpoint of the United States, as well as of many Latin American nations, is that unfettered commerce would be good for all.
According to a news release from U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick's office, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico has led to a boom in Mexican exports, higher wages for Mexican workers, less poverty, more foreign investment and a stronger agricultural sector.
"Free trade and open markets are among the most powerful tools available to fight poverty," the statement says.
However, a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, that was released this week to coincide with the Miami negotiations, found that Mexico's agricultural sector, which provides most of the country's employment, has lost 1.3 million jobs since the 1994 NAFTA agreement.
Far from diminishing under NAFTA, the flow of impoverished Mexicans into the United States has risen dramatically, the study says.
Mexico's most vulnerable residents "have faced a maelstrom of change beyond their capacity, or that of the government, to control," it says.
The shortcomings of NAFTA are seen by some activists in Miami as clear evidence that expanding free trade to include all of the Americas except communist Cuba would be not be a cure for economic and social ills.
On the contrary, "free trade is a factory producing poor people," said Jorge Robles, an official with Mexico's Authentic Labor Front, a labor union.
Under NAFTA, "General Motors, Zenith and Archer Daniels Midland have made good progress in Mexico," said Alejandro Villamar of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade. "The revenues of these companies have increased in the past 10 years, but only for them. What has been the progress for Mexican factory workers? Or for rural laborers? Or in prices paid by the average Mexican? We can't find any."
When reminded that the governments negotiating in their name are democratically elected, many of the Latin Americans who have come to Miami to oppose the free-trade area said the politicians did not represent the interests of the majority.
"To sign these free-trade agreements would benefit only a small segment of society and marginalize workers and farmers," De Fatima said.
Another reason for wariness in Latin America is that the proposed FTAA's most powerful patron would be the United States, whose public image in the hemisphere may be nearing an all-time low, said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami. Suspicions are rife that the FTAA is a bigger and more contemporary version of a banana republic, to permit more effective exploitation of Latin economies by U.S. businesses, he said.
"I was at an anti-FTAA rally in Bolivia," Gamarra recalled. "People there said, 'This is an American conspiracy to take us over.' "
In the interlinked modern world, poverty in Latin nations easily becomes that of the United States — a process that could greatly accelerate in the proposed free-trade area. Villamar said Mexico needs 1.3 million new jobs a year, but no more than 260,000 are being created. Mexicans who can't find employment live on the street, enter the drug trade or pay to be smuggled into the United States, he said.
"Trade all over the Americas will make the bankers richer. But people who are poor will become even poorer. And people in the middle will be devastated," predicted Laura Caballero, an official with the Farmworker Women's Leadership Project in Greenfield, Calif.
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times