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Setback for Bush, FTAA

by Tom Burke |
December 1, 2003
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Steelworkers wearing shirts reading: "FTAA Sucks"
Contingent of Steelworkers marches in Miami. (Fight Back! News/Matthew Cassel)

Miami, FL - Bush and the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement suffered a setback in Miami, Nov. 16 - 21. The Bush administration’s trade representative Robert Zoellick closed the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA) meeting a day early with only a partial outline, not an agreement.

The handful of billionaires and scores of multi-millionaires promoting the FTAA saw their deal drift away on the tear gas-filled streets. The FTAA outline does not bind all the countries of the hemisphere to the same rules and regulations, but allows countries to make bi-lateral agreements and then try to negotiate and recruit other countries to those. This will certainly slow down U.S. corporations plans for exploitation of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Marching and Protesting

While trade ministers were sequestered in fancy meeting rooms, workers and young people out on the streets of Miami protested. Over 20,000 people, the vast majority trade unionists, marched through the streets of downtown Miami to protest the FTAA, Nov. 20. The United Steel Workers of America, with a lot to lose under the FTAA, mobilized thousands. They see the FTAA as a plan for ruination.

Workers, both union and non-union, see their factories closed by U.S. corporations that move to countries where governments use U.S. tax dollars to repress unions. Interviewed on the Metrorail, Jose, a non-union phoneline worker, told Fight Back!, “Free trade means jobs here are privatized or deregulation cuts the bottom out of the wages. Our wages are going down. Then, in countries like Colombia, where I am from, the U.S. companies can run wild and do whatever they want. Calling all the shots.”

A Sunny Seattle

The police in Miami came prepared for war on the streets. The highly militarized police used armored personnel carriers, water cannon, helicopters, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, electric tazer guns, three-foot long clubs, shields and more. It made protesters wonder, “What do the cops have for backup?”

Street corners looked like occupied territories, with police closing streets and businesses. Public transportation was closed down hours before the big march and police prevented 87 buses of retired and union workers from arriving near the protest on the waterfront. Retired people, union workers and college students were pepper sprayed and shot with rubber bullets.

The police were brutal. Anna Maria Blackshire, a street medic for the protests, said, “As protesters were moving away from the police, I saw cops hitting people with big batons over the head. One guy I helped treat was in the front as the cops were pushing people back and the cops hit him hard. He was bleeding from the back of his head. He was stunned and needed stitches. Still, people listened to the medics and made it through. People pulled together to take care of each other and help each other.”

In an ugly sign of the times, the police were given $8 million from the $87 billion Bush requested for the occupation of Iraq. After Iraq and Afghanistan, the streets of Miami looked like the third front in Bush’s ‘war on terror.’ The Florida politicians, including Governor Jeb Bush, wanted to be certain this would be no sunny version of the ‘Battle of Seattle.’

Preparedness and Solidarity

For days leading up to the Nov. 20 protest march, many unions and campaigns supporting workers were in action and holding meetings around Miami. Luis Adolfo Cardona, the Colombian trade unionist who survived a Coca-Cola death squad, spoke in front of a 2000-plus meeting of the United Steelworkers. Hundreds of young radicals held forums and discussions in an old warehouse building on the edge of downtown, where the police harassed them. The Immokalee Workers, who harvest tomatoes under abusive conditions and call for a boycott of Taco Bell, marched for over 23 miles to draw attention to their fight-back.

By the day of the main march, many groups and unions had become aware of each others’ campaigns and solidarity was built strong. In at least one instance, where the police snatched a young protester out of the march, steel workers waded in and snatched the young man back. On another occasion an ex-cop and retired steelworker marched up and down in front of the police as they repeatedly shot rubber bullets at him. He was in Miami to protest the FTAA and no one was going to stop him! Given the police response to the protest, it comes as no surprise that many of the union workers in attendance left Miami wondering “Dude, where’s my country?”