Police and protesters clashed in Miami, Florida as trade negotiators held talks aimed at creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas by the end of next year. Police made a number of arrests, but there were no reports of the type of widespread violence that has broken out at other trade talks in recent years.
Groups of mostly young anti-globalization activists clashed with police in the streets of downtown Miami on Thursday. About two-thousand heavily armed police in riot gear formed a series of unbreakable lines, creating a security cordon that kept the protesters far away from trade negotiators who are drawing up an agreement which could lead to the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Police say their overwhelming presence and the sealing off of much of downtown Miami with high steel fences helped to prevent widespread violence. However protesters like this woman said the heavy police presence was not only intimidating but also misguided.
"They [the police] need to be protecting us from those delegates inside the intercontinental hotel who are making these deals that are going to affect us so negatively for the rest of our lives," she said. "I mean we are the ones who need to be protected from them. They do not need to be protected from us, that is the way it is."
Anti-free trade protesters have been organizing for months to oppose the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which they say will encourage the transfer of jobs out of the United States to countries where workers earn low wages and have no rights. Proponents of the pact say it will encourage economic growth and trade throughout the hemisphere.
Police began sealing off much of downtown Miami earlier this week in preparation for Thursdays protests. Workers like Melissa Bancroft, who runs a delicatessen, say business this week has been the worst in memory.
"It is very slow, these are all our employees who work with me and we are all out here," said Melissa Bancroft. "It is very slow no business." As anti-globalization activists protested against the police lines, a much larger group of labor union activists held an anti-free trade rally in a downtown park. John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, says free trade agreements have had a negative impact on American workers.
"Trade policy is so important to our country and to all the other countries who are represented here," said John Sweeney. "Trade is not working for working families. We have the experience of ten years of NAFTA [The North American Free Trade Agreement] where the trade deficit has gone from $9 billion to $87 billion over the past 10 years. That has created a tremendous loss of jobs in the United States alone, and it is about time that our trade policies protected the core labor standards of workers and addressed environmental and human rights concerns."
Trade ministers from every country in the hemisphere, except Cuba, are debating a draft trade agreement that sets forth a minimal set of rights and obligations for each country to follow. It will allow countries to opt out of parts of the agreement they do not support, including sections dealing with investment protection, intellectual property rights and agriculture.