A massive showdown is shaping up in Miami over economic justice, democracy, the environment and U.S. empire. On November 17-21, trade representatives from 34 nations across the Western hemisphere will gather in sunny Florida to negotiate a free trade zone that stretches from the Alaskan tundra to the southernmost tip of Argentina. While they are in town, these 34 government elites should expect some company.
Miami is the setting for one of the most important mobilizations of the global justice movement since 9/11. In the defiant spirit of Seattle's 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, a broad coalition of grassroots activists, trade unions and non-governmental organizations are planning large-scale demonstrations to derail the trade meetings and map out alternatives to corporate globalization. From anarchists to family farmers, Miami will be overflowing with people who know that another world is possible.
A Sense of Urgency
The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) extends the failed model of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the entire Western hemisphere excluding Cuba. The stakes are enormous. The FTAA will create the world's largest free trade area, affecting over 650 million people and an estimated $9 trillion in capital.
The New York Times reports that Robert Zoellick, Bush's top trade advisor, has prioritized bilateral and regional deals (such as the FTAA) in response to the recent collapse of WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico. US trade officials are hoping to launch the FTAA by January 2005; Miami is supposed to be the last round of negotiations.
After 10 years of NAFTA—the free trade pact that linked the economies of Mexico, Canada, and the US—the record is clear. Corporate free trade generates widespread poverty and inequality while accelerating environmental destruction. These legally binding agreements threaten democracy and concentrate economic power by giving unaccountable transnational corporations tremendous leverage over local producers and communities. In short, the free trade worldview prioritizes corporate profits above any other consideration: human, ecological, or other.
A glance at the US-Mexico border reveals the immense hidden costs of free trade. NAFTA forced more than one million Mexican farmers—mostly of indigenous descent—off their land, as they were unable to compete with cheap grain imports from American agribusiness. In search of economic opportunities, displaced campesinos often migrate north. Some get jobs in border sweatshops known as maquiladoras, while others continue the perilous journey to the US
Since NAFTA began in 1994, well over 2,000 economic refugees have died from dehydration, exposure and other causes while attempting to cross the heavily militarized U.S.-Mexico border. Those who survive may eventually land a low-paying and dangerous job in the US, perhaps picking tomatoes or oranges in Florida (www.ciw-online.org). In a cruel paradox, the ideology of free trade deconstructs national borders for corporations and capital while slamming them firmly shut to human beings.
Crudely put, the FTAA is NAFTA on steroids. If passed, the FTAA will force Central and South American governments to slash labor and environmental regulations as their countries vie for investment from US corporations. The ensuing "race to the bottom" will make the excesses of NAFTA look like child’s play. Meanwhile, government-funded social services such as healthcare, education, energy, environmental protection, and even water and sewage systems will be privatized and auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder.
To be fair, privatization is already occurring in many places, from Iraq to the University of Texas-Austin (see "The Global Sellout of Higher Education," Zmag Nov. 2003). However, the FTAA legally locks in this process without popular consent. Under a veneer of free market rhetoric, privatization enriches corporations at the public’s expense. These experiments often result in skyrocketing costs and dwindling quality and accessibility.
In 2000, for instance, the Bolivian government sold the public water system in its capitol to U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation. While Bechtel chased profits, water costs shot dramatically up, leaving many Bolivians without access to clean water supplies. Faced with massive civil unrest, the government canceled its contract with Bechtel. Earlier this fall, angry Bolivians again took to the streets to block privatization of their country’s valuable natural gas resources. With an unintentional touch of irony, their president fled to Miami.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win
In a larger sense, the FTAA represents the next chapter in the colonization of the "New World" that began in 1492. This is simply the latest assault on the cultures and autonomy of people living throughout the western hemisphere. Gold-and-glory seeking conquistadores have given way to pinstriped corporate lawyers and financial analysts with spreadsheets. True to its colonialist roots, the FTAA aims to reshape communities according to the demands of foreign profit, not local need. Yet as the past 511 years indicates, colonization breeds resistance.
In many places, ordinary people are rising up against illegitimate authority that hides under the banner of free trade. To win this fight, we need to build on the remarkable growth of the antiwar movement, linking the struggles against militarism and corporate globalization. After all, economic and military domination are flip sides of the same coin. Given that free market policies in Latin America are ultimately enforced with US military muscle, one must wonder about the synergistic relationship between the FTAA and ongoing US military interventions such as Plan Colombia.
Folks from many walks of life will converge in a colorful display of solidarity in Miami. Consumer advocates, students, farmworkers, poor people, greens, immigrants, anti-capitalists, and unionists will overlook their immediate differences and cooperate towards a common goal: defeating the FTAA. In addition to permitted marches and workshops, large numbers of people are expected to participate in creative direct action to actively oppose corporate free trade. Barricades, tear gas, and police in riot gear will not silence our voices. Our massive and militant presence in the streets is critical for the grassroots movement against empire. Please come to Miami and help turn the tide.
Sean Sellers is a Political Communication undergraduate and library employee at the University of Texas-Austin. In addition to local organizing, Sean currently serves on the national steering committees for Campus Greens and United for Peace & Justice . He can be reached at email@example.com.