Officials OK free-trade plan

Ministers approve outline for FTAA as protesters rally outside Miami hotel

An extension of NAFTA

More than 30 marchers arrested near facility

November 21, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - As tens of thousands marched in protest nearby, some with Steelworkers union flags and giant cardboard sunflowers, trade ministers from across the Americas approved yesterday a buffet-style plan to create the world's largest free-trade bloc.

The Free Trade Area of the Americas would extend the decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement to eliminate tariffs and trade barriers among all Western Hemisphere countries except Cuba.

By late yesterday afternoon, 36 protesters had been arrested outside the temporary metal fencing that surrounded the Intercontinental Hotel, where trade ministers from 34 countries met. Two police officers were injured during protests. Demonstrators also were injured, according to activists representing them.

When protesters tried to pull down the fencing that screened off the Intercontinental yesterday morning, police sprayed tear gas and used nightsticks to push back the crowd.

The protest was not as violent as some had anticipated. Marchers on Biscayne Boulevard carried signs with slogans such as "For planet and people. Stop FTAA," and chanted "Free people, not free trade."

The meeting was scheduled to end today, but ministers hastened negotiations and reached agreement on an outline for the pact, which might not be complete until 2005. U.S. participation in an agreement would require the approval of Congress and President Bush.

Deputy trade ministers this week had approved a draft text that would allow nations to pick and choose among thorny issues such as agricultural subsidies and patent protection, which some proponents of the deal saw as a retreat.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick yesterday asked ministers to give "definition and focus" to the draft document.

Argentina's deputy foreign minister, Martin Redrado, said that for real progress to be made in opening up markets, the United States must consider slashing subsidies it provides to farmers.

In a speech to business leaders yesterday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans said that after nearly a decade of talks on an FTAA, the time for an agreement had arrived.

"Nine years is too long, and it's time for action," he said. "We can't sit around here waiting for people to study it, and study it, and study it."

Evans pledged to protect U.S. workers from unfair practices. "We have to be able to look our workers in the eyes and tell them they are on a level playing field," he said.

But U.S. labor unions and others say the agreement that some have dubbed "NAFTA on steroids" would shift thousands of jobs to other countries, reduce worker rights, exploit cheap labor and drain natural resources.

"We're losing livable-wage jobs with these trade agreements. We really can't have this in any of the Americas," said Jeff Heimerl, an electrician from Minneapolis and a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who marched yesterday.

Pockets of trade-pact opponents challenged police late in the afternoon. Officers in riot gear sprayed tear gas and pushed back the crowd by walking as a human wall. Police spent months preparing for the week, hoping to avoid the kind of violence that disrupted World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, in September and in Seattle four years ago.

Law enforcement agents from more than 40 local, state and federal agencies came to Miami to help with security.

Protesters came from near and far as well.

Ben Schor, 21, drove about 27 hours from Indiana with schoolmates. Arlene Kanno, 60, a retired educator, flew in from Wisconsin. Cara Findeisen, a 19-year-old college student, flew down from Maine. "We've lost thousands of jobs since NAFTA was started," Findeisen said. "People in Maine are feeling it."

Labor protesters from around the nation, including Maryland, wore a virtual rainbow of T-shirts to represent their various affiliations. The Communications Workers of America wore purple, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers wore green, and the United Steelworkers of America were in white shirts.

"We're losing good-paying jobs to India, Moscow, China, and these are pretty high-tech, high-paying union jobs," said Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers in Silver Spring.

"I think we're definitely making an impact," said T.J. Johnson, 51, a mechanic in the hot mill at Sparrows Point and a member of the United Steelworkers of America Local 9477. Steelworkers, who appeared to have the largest union presence at the march, led the parade.

"We believe it's important that we win this fight," said John Hough, 56, vice president of Local 9477 and a lab tech at Sparrows Point. "If we don't, Sparrows Point will close. There will be a lot of displacement in the community. Those people who don't think it's important now are going to feel it later."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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