Miami braces itself for protests, disputes at globalization ta

Sunday, November 16, 2003

MIAMI -- At most free trade meetings, protesters on the streets are the most vocal opponents to global economic expansion. But recently, Brazil and other developing nations have been equally resistant to proposed U.S. policies to ease trade restrictions.

Those disputes will center in Miami at talks beginning today to create the world's largest free trade area. As the 34 nations involved in the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks try to resolve their differences in hotel meeting rooms, police are prepared for at least 20,000 protesters to swarm the city.

Law enforcement agencies have spent months training to avoid a repeat of the infamous 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Those meetings ended with little accomplished after being derailed by disputes among member nations and five days of riots that cost the city about $3 million.

Miami Police Chief John Timoney said some officers were worried after watching old news footage of Seattle, but his message to them was the same one he gives to the public: "This is not going to be as bad as it looks on television."

Five protesters were arrested in an early demonstration on Saturday, including an observer dispatched by protesters to watch officers' conduct.

The biggest feuds may take place inside the meeting rooms. The hemisphere's two biggest economies -- the United States and Brazil -- have been arguing about the scope of the FTAA.

The FTAA proposes eliminating or reducing trade barriers among all the nations in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba. The 34-nation bloc would consist of 800 million people and have a collective economic output of more than $14 trillion a year.

The Bush administration refuses to discuss slashing subsidies and tariffs that protect U.S. farmers, arguing that those protections should be negotiated in global trade agreements, not regional ones, because the European Union is the biggest subsidizer of agriculture.

Brazil contends its farmers cannot compete in U.S. markets, so it is demanding that subsidies and tariffs be on the bargaining table. If not, it has threatened to stop negotiating over investment and intellectual property rights -- areas that are key to U.S. businesses' plans for growth in the region.

U.S. steel tariffs are also off the table because the White House says American steel makers face unfair competition and foreign dumping, or selling imported products below cost. That stance has angered competitors around the world.

Those disputes caused the collapse of global trade talks in Mexico in September, and some analysts predict that the Miami meetings could end the same way.

"No one is holding their breath for Miami. They really can't solve all the issues at once," said Joe Pasetti, government affairs director for the Washington-based Information Technology Industry Council.

The conflicts put President Bush in an awkward position as he campaigns for re-election.

The FTAA is a key part of Bush's plans to expand the U.S. economy and create new jobs while reducing poverty in the hemisphere. But meeting Brazilian demands could cost Bush votes in key areas such as Florida, the Midwest and the Rust Belt.

Florida is the biggest citrus and sugar producer in the country, and growers fear a flood of cheap products from Brazil and other nations would wipe them out. Many Midwestern farmers and steel workers have the same fears.

"Average workers and even small businesses have been hurt" by free trade agreements, said Thea Lee, chief international economist for the AFL-CIO.

Analysts predict the election could hinder progress toward an FTAA agreement by the January 2005 deadline.

That hasn't stopped at least eight cities from lobbying to win the FTAA's coveted headquarters. The permanent secretariat is projected to possibly bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the host city.

Miami is considered a front-runner. Other cities include Atlanta; Panama City, Panama; Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; and Puebla, Mexico.

Miami officials hope the meeting boosts the city's bid, so police have staged mock protest encounters, readied fire trucks that could double as water cannons, and plan to construct a security fence around the hotel where the talks will be conducted. The city also adopted an ordinance banning protesters from carrying guns, rifles or "any length of metal, plastic or other similar hard or stiff material," among other things.

The biggest protests are planned for Thursday and Friday. But during the whole week, all downtown federal courts and some shops are closing, and cruise lines are moving operations from Miami north to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

In an effort to include unions and protesters in the talks, people registered at a concurrent forum will be allowed to speak about their concerns directly to trade ministers from the 34 nations Wednesday.

"It's in our interest to listen and try to address concerns, because we ultimately have to build a coalition to approve whatever trade agreement we have in Congress," said Richard Mills, spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.


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