Trade ministers from 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere are arriving in Miami for five days of talks on creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas. It would be the world's largest free trade bloc. Thousands of anti-globalization protesters have also arrived and thousands of police have been mobilized to prevent the protests from turning violent.
The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas is supposed to go into effect in 2005 and cover every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba.
Deputy trade ministers from countries in the hemisphere began holding talks on Sunday in advance of major meetings of trade ministers later in the week. The talks are expected to conclude with a "Declaration of Miami" which will outline steps to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas by the end of next year.
Joining the trade negotiators in Miami are thousands of anti-globalization protesters, who include labor unions, environmental organizations and a small number of far-left anarchist groups who have threatened to disrupt the meetings, despite pleas not do so from a majority of the anti-free trade activists.
Gretchen Gordon of the Citizens Trade Campaign, which opposes violence, says the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas is designed to help large corporations and will hurt those who cannot compete.
"We are against the FTAA, because the FTAA is a global trading system that goes against workers rights, consumers, family farmers and the ability of global citizens to participate in their own democracy," she said.
In preparation for several days of protests, which could turn violent, police in Miami have canceled all leave and requested reinforcements from federal law enforcement officials as well as other local jurisdictions.
Much of downtown Miami is blocked off to traffic near the site of meetings. Lieutenant Bill Schwartz, a spokesman for the Miami Police Department says his fellow officers will try to be careful to distinguish between legitimate protesters and those who try and violently disrupt the trade talks.
"We feel very certain that 98 percent of the folks are coming down here to protest peacefully," he said. "There is about two percent who are the wild cards. Those two percent who actually refer to themselves as anarchists are the ones we are concerned about."
With the recent collapse of global trade talks in Mexico, expectations for the Miami meetings have been scaled back somewhat. The chief U.S. Trade Negotiator, Robert Zoellick recently said any agreement reached in Miami must recognize different levels of commitment to free trade in different countries.
There are growing trade tensions between the United States and Brazil which would dominate any future Free Trade Area of the Americas. U.S. officials would like to see Brazil agree to reforms in the areas of investment and intellectual property rights, while Brazilian officials are opposed to U.S. efforts to protect domestic citrus and sugar growers with high tariffs.