Miami braces for trade protests

Meeting on wider treaty brings thousands to city

November 19, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - With cruise ships diverted up the coast, storefronts sheathed in plywood and blocks of downtown barricaded, an uneasy calm enveloped Miami yesterday as residents and police on horseback, bicycle and foot readied for a rally over free trade that could amass 35,000 protesters this week.

Tens of thousands of activists - from union workers who fear the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs abroad to social activists who contend that health and environmental laws will be overridden - are descending on the city to oppose free trade talks scheduled to begin here tomorrow. Busloads of participants from Baltimore arrived yesterday, including steelworkers and labor leaders in town for a union summit.

Trade ministers from 34 countries are in Miami to discuss the Free Trade Area of the Americas policy. A proposed expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the FTAA would extend the elimination of tariffs to every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba. Miami is vying to become a permanent base for administrators who would oversee the multinational trade agreement.

While politicians here see the FTAA's potential to boost the local economy, they and law enforcement officials have nervously prepared for this week of meetings for nearly a year - and for what is being billed as one of the largest protests of organized labor in recent years.

Violent street protests that coincided with meetings of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico, two months ago and in Seattle in 1999 and of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington in 2000 have exacerbated the unease.

Lt. Bill Schwartz of the Miami Police Department said he is confident that 98 percent of the people who have arrived to speak out against the FTAA will do so peacefully.

"But that 2 percent is pretty troublesome," he said, "and we have been preparing unlike anything we've ever prepared for in the Police Department."

Big budget

Congress earmarked $8.5 million from this month's $87.4 billion emergency spending bill for the Iraq war specifically for costs associated with the FTAA meeting.

Cruise ships have been diverted to Fort Lauderdale this week, and security at the Dante B. Fascell Port of Miami-Dade has been tightened. Downtown schools have moved classes to alternate locations. Other agencies, from the federal court to after-school care programs, have closed.

The United Steelworkers of America, which is holding a conference here this week on industry issues, will participate in a march along palm-tree-lined Biscayne Boulevard tomorrow.

"It's a fundamental importance that we have people down here opposing the FTAA because it's a threat to our democratic rights, to workers' rights, to environmental health, to food safety," said Mike McGuire, a 30-year-old social activist who drove 14 hours from Baltimore a week ago.

McGuire, who works for the Alternative Press Center in Baltimore, has been spending his time in Miami trying to find space for about 200 of his colleagues to sleep while they're here. His base of activities is a warehouse-turned-welcome center where dozens of protesters hold meetings and paint signs with such slogans as "Hungry for Justice" and "Create your own future. Stop the FTAA."

Miami police had arrested eight people by last night in connection with the FTAA meeting - five Saturday for blocking a sidewalk and three Monday - two were charged with disorderly conduct and one with battery of a police officer.

The Police Department has joined with more than 40 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to secure downtown throughout the conference and especially tomorrow.

"There's still a lot more buildup - setting up barricades, detouring traffic," said Sgt. Jim Sayih, supervisor of the bike patrol of the Miami Police Department, which has spent 10 months preparing for this week.

Hotels surrounded

Swaths of downtown have been fenced off, enclosing the hotels where FTAA delegates are staying. Police are clustered on nearly every downtown intersection, some with riot gear displayed.

"I'm seeing more police than protesters at this point," said Roland Diaz, manager of Let's Make a Daiquiri, an outdoor bar.

Miles away, at the AFL-CIO's South Florida headquarters in Miami-Dade County, union workers were preparing as well.

Officials with the International Laborers Union, the Teamsters and other unions wore T-shirts that read, "FTAA: No way" and made signs with slogans such as "Global Justice. Good Jobs. Stop Bush's FTAA."

"This is something that we have to do eventually," said Tony Parker, a business agent with the Iron Workers Local 272 of South Florida, as he stapled signs for the march. "What will happen to this country when all of the jobs go overseas?"

Stores that have remained open have seen far fewer customers this week, although several are determined to stay open. One named Free Zone Trading, an electronics shop a few blocks from the FTAA meeting, was the only store that remained open on its block yesterday.

"We're just going to open the front door and the shutters are going to be down and we'll see what happens," employee Henry Martinez said. "If the riots are right outside, then definitely we're going to close the store."

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