MIAMI – As thousands of union members, environmental and human rights activists massed here to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit, hundreds of community activists from low-income neighborhoods, immigrants and farm workers completed a 34-mile, three-day march on Nov. 18, chanting “Free Trade, No Way!” to the beat of drums and music. Leafleters gave out information to the onlookers. Motorists honked and flashed peace signs.
The marchers traversed U.S. Route 1 from Broward, Fla., to Miami to tell the people of Florida and the world that poverty at home or anywhere in the world must end.
Truckers, schoolteachers, students, and retirees here participated in the “Root Cause” march. “The FTAA will have a huge impact on people’s everyday lives – on the food we eat, the water we drink, our children’s access to education and health care,” said Sushma Sheth, policy/communications director for the Miami Workers Center, one of the organizers.
Sheth told the World, “We did local community-based organizing to insure grassroots participation in the fight for global justice. “The Miami Workers Center, along with Low Income Families Fighting Together (LIFFT), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Power U Center sponsored the Root Cause campaign. They found corporate globalization among the common “root causes” for the problems of low-income workers, immigrants, farm workers and communities of color. Sheth told the World, “We researched the community impact on wages, immigration, privatization and environmental racism.”
The Root Cause campaign conducted weekly discussions on the impact of FTAA on Florida. As a result of the 10-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Florida has already lost over 27,000 jobs, mainly in manufacturing. Eight factories in Miami alone have closed and moved to other countries, leaving families and whole communities in poverty. Twenty-seven percent of jobs in Florida pay below poverty level wages.
The links between Miami, the poorest city in the U.S., and the corporate agenda for the hemisphere were dramatized by the victims of a system run on corporate greed. Mary Nesbitt, a marcher and leader of LIFFT, told the World, “Trade agreements affect everyone. Fair trade would mean having jobs, and being able to speak to government officials. With the FTAA, they meet in secret.” Nesbitt is a veteran of a struggle against the privatization of public housing sparked by Bush administration’s HOPE VI program, which has slashed the nation’s public housing supply through privatization. When the housing project she lived in for 28 years was sold off, that whole community was forced to disperse around the county. “People who knew each other for years lost their support system,” she said. The privatizing of essential human services is one of the hallmarks of free trade agreements.
“We are saying no to the FTAA because we are fighting for human rights and refugee rights, not only for Haitians,” Marleine Bastien, a Haitian community activist told the crowd at the concluding rally in Bayside Park. “We want freedom for the people of the world. You cannot come to our country and force us to work for peanuts and put us in jail when we come here.”
Marchers were housed and fed along the way by community and religious groups. On the last day, the marchers ate lunch at St. Martha’s Catholic Church, next to the headquarters of the Miami Catholic Archdiocese. Archbishop John C. Favalora told them, “We wish for you a good and peaceful journey. Together we’ll attain justice and peace.” Florida’s Catholic bishops have been involved in the defense of farm workers rights.
Marchers encountered a chilling atmosphere when they entered Miami. Free speech and the right to protest were seriously threatened by the unprecedented mobilization of more than 40 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Businesses closed and empty streets in downtown Miami filled up with police in riot gear, with helicopters hovering overhead. Police boats patrolled in Biscayne Bay. Organizers were put under surveillance while random searches were made to intimidate protesters during the weeks of protest preparations. The ACLU and Miami Activists, a new FTAA legal observers group, have said they will pursue legal action if the harassment persists.
The Root Cause march was timed to take place during the ministerial meetings that are mapping out the final outlines of the FTAA agreement, which has been dubbed “NAFTA on steroids.” FTAA would create the largest “free trade” zone in history.
Thousands of other protesters are also gathering in Miami. Comparing this week’s actions to the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, observers note the presence of a new confidence that corporate globalization can and must be stopped. Leo Gerard, president of the United Steel Workers of America, referred to the more than 2,000 steel workers Rapid Response team members meeting here in Miami as part of the massive labor, environmental, youth, faith-based, peace movement mobilization to protest the FTAA ministerial meeting. “Thank God for the students, for the young people out there in the streets fighting for their ideals,” he said. “Thank God for the environmentalists, family farmers, civil rights, and anti-poverty activists. None of us can win alone. Together we can’t lose.”
Scott Marshall contributed to this article. The author can be reached at