MIAMI - Police used tear gas on Thursday to disperse protesters demonstrating against an Americas-wide free-trade pact being debated by trade ministers from the region.
A demonstrator gestures to riot police during protests against meetings of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami, November 20, 2003. Demonstrators gathered on Biscayne Boulevard to protest as FTAA ministers met in a nearby hotel. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Sporadic scuffles broke out as protesters jostled with heavily armed police in the hotel area where representatives of 34 countries discussed the future of trade in a region of almost 800 million. Police estimated the number of demonstrators at around 1,000.
There were no immediate reports of arrests or injuries.
Thousands of police, many in full riot gear, patrolled the center of Miami, where worried shop owners shuttered their establishments in an atmosphere reminiscent of a city under siege.
Some of the protesters carried puppets or giant flowers, some dressed as tomatoes and many chanted slogans against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, and a globalized economy. They marched from the downtown Miami government center toward the InterContinental Hotel, where the meeting was being held behind a fence.
"We did deploy gas in one location and that was just to remove the crowd from a situation where people were pouring a flammable liquid on a pile of debris," said Lt. Tony Russell, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The Coast Guard is one of many law enforcement agencies pulled in to protect Miami and the trade delegates from any violence like what occurred in Seattle during world trade talks in 1999.
MINISTERS KEEP FTAA ALIVE
Chairing the talks, the United States and Brazil appeared to have papered over their disagreements on how comprehensive the pact should be. The two countries kept alive prospects for an FTAA pact by 2005.
A protestor faces Miami police during demonstrations against meetings of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami November 20, 2003. Sporadic scuffles broke out as protesters jostled with heavily armed police in the hotel area where representatives of 34 countries discussed the future of trade in a region of almost 800 million. Photo by Carlos Villalon/Reuters
A draft declaration crafted in the past three days by regional deputy trade ministers would require all countries to agree on a common set of commitments in each of nine negotiating areas, while allowing a second set of talks for some countries to negotiate more ambitious obligations.
Protesters opposed to the FTAA ranged from labor unionists to environmentalists. They have converged on Miami since pre-ministerial talks began on Monday.
Authorities expected thousands of demonstrators at a march and rally later in the day.
One police officer, who declined to be identified, estimated 8,000 law enforcement agents were on duty.
John De Leon, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, said police tactics were heavy handed. "I think these are totalitarian-type tactics. I think there are too few people here to justify this sort of policing," he said.
Protesters chanted "Go away, FTAA." Large papier mache puppets derided the International Monetary Fund and privatization and equated the FTAA with war.
Camilla Schneider, a 60-year-old from San Francisco who was dressed as a tomato and traveled to Miami to support organic food and small farmers, said it was her first activist participation since the Vietnam War.
"I see the FTAA and the WTO (World Trade Organization) as putting democracy into the hands of a few basically unknown, unmonitored, unelected individuals who are literally killing people" in assembly plants and factories, she said.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd