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Miami or bust

When Latin America's leaders gather in the US next month, they must oppose rampant free trade

Naomi Klein
Monday October 27, 2003
The Guardian

When massive political protests forced Bolivia's president to resign earlier this month, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled to a place where he knew he would find a sympathetic ear. "I'm here in Miami trying to recover from the shock and shame," the ex-president told reporters, after being unseated by a revolt against his plan to sell the country's gas to the US. Fortunately for Mr Sanchez de Lozada, there are plenty of other Miami residents who know just how shocking and shameful it feels to lose power to the leftwing resurgence in Latin America. So many, in fact, that he could form a local support group for sufferers of post-revolutionary stress disorder.

Possible members: Venezuela's ex-president, Carlos Andres Perez, who started living part-time in Miami after he was impeached in 1993 on corruption charges, and fellow Venezuelan- Miamista Carlos Fernandez, one of the leaders of the failed coup against President Hugo Chavez. Ecuador's ex-president, Gustavo Noboa, might also stop by, since he tried to flee to Miami in August to avoid a corruption investigation at home. To bring a sense of history, the beach house bitch session could be filled out by Francisco Hernandez. He took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and, as president of the Cuban American National Foundation, Hernandez has been plotting the overthrow of Fidel Castro ever since.

For decades, Miami has been the preferred retirement community for Latin America's regurgitated rightwing: when the people spit out the politicians responsible for keeping them in poverty, the ex-rulers are frequently swallowed up by Miami. So powerful is the Florida factor in Latin American politics that Joao Pedro Stedile, one of the founders of Brazil's powerful Landless People's Movement (MST), half-jokingly told an audience in Toronto last week that if Brazil's elites continue to undermine reforms promised by President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, they too would find themselves looking for a condo in South Beach.

But Florida is also home to exiles of another sort, people who left their home countries in Latin America and the Caribbean not to flee from a resurgent left, but to escape the rightwing policies imposed by many of these same disgraced politicians. On November 20, the two Miamis will come crashing together when the city hosts a summit for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, a plan to create the largest and most far-reaching free trade zone in the world.

When the 34 trade ministers of the Americas look out from their fortressed conference centre, they will see a city of faces very much like the ones they left behind in their home countries. The chances are good that it will be a Nicaraguan who cleans the trade ministers' hotel rooms while they debate whether "services" should be included in the agreement; that a Mexican will have picked the Florida oranges in their juice as they debate agricultural subsidies; that an Argentinian will take their order and a Haitian will wash the dishes as they discuss "investor rights" over dinner; and that it will be a Guatemalan who manicures the golf course when the deals are done.

Sixty-one per cent of the people living in the City of Miami are immigrants. The Miami suburb of Hialeah boasts the highest rate of Spanish speakers in the US: 92%. And it's not just Cubans. Miami - the poorest city in the US - is, in many ways, the entire Americas in miniature, the hemisphere covered by the FTAA crowded into one dense urban pocket by the sea (including Canadian pensioners and drunk US college kids).

There is no better way to understand how free trade policies have ravaged Latin America and the Caribbean than through the life stories of Florida's successive waves of immigrants. Most recently, when privatisation and deregulation of the financial sector sparked an economic crash in Argentina two years ago, as many as 180,000 Argentinians immediately moved to Miami to look for work.

They have been joined by a new class of Mexican immigrants: laid-off workers from the country's "maquiladora" factories. When Mexico joined the North American Free Trade Agreement 10 years ago, these export factories were held up as Mexico's escape from poverty. But in the past three years, more than 215,000 maquiladora workers have lost their jobs. Many of the contracts have gone to China, while many of the workers have headed for Florida, to join the state's 700,000 undocumented immigrants.

Testifying before members of Congress in June, Lucas Benitez, a farmer and member of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, told of another reason behind the Miami migration. "Thousands of us who find ourselves in Florida have been obliged to leave our countries because of the consequences of the free trade agreements that have flooded our countries with cheap agricultural products from the US and Canada, making it impossible for us to sell the crops we have grown for generations."

During the FTAA summit next month, the streets of Miami will be teeming with similar stories. "We're going to show the true diversity of Miami and chip away at the myth that it's just rightwing Cubans," says Kameelah Benjamin-Fuller, one of the anti-FTAA protest organisers.

There will be another myth dispelled: the one claiming that Latin America is clamouring for this free trade deal. The last major FTAA summit was in April 2001 in Quebec City. A lot has changed since then. In Quebec, the dissent was confined to the streets, with the 34 heads of state seemingly in favour of the agreement. But in the two and a half years since the Quebec summit, free trade policies have come under heavy fire in Latin America and the political map has been dramatically redrawn.

Centre-left candidates have come to power in Brazil and Ecuador, promising to govern in the interests of the poor. In Argentina, popular protests pushed out the neo-liberal government of Fernando de La Rua, and blocked Carlos Menem, who brought mass privatisation and deregulation to Argentina, from staging a comeback. The latest polls suggest that Uruguay and Peru could be next.

Voters have been unequivocal in their rejection of further concessions to foreign multinationals and lenders. Yet despite this, the politicians who rode to power promising change keep losing their nerve once in office. And this timidity is taking a serious political toll.

In Brazil, Lula's support is slipping in the face of his ineffectual "zero hunger" programme. In Ecuador, Gutierrez's numbers plummeted after he agreed to weaken labour laws to please the International Monetary Fund. In Bolivia, the farmers and workers who forced their president to flee to Miami have made it clear that if the new president breaks his promises, he won't last long either. "If we did it once we can do it again," Elio Argullo, a former miner turned street vendor, told the New York Times. "And if we have to, you can sure bet that we will."

Last week, Joao Pedro Stedile of the Landless People's Movement described Latin America as "a volcano." That means that even leftwing politicians had better be careful about what they agree to at the November FTAA summit. Or they could find themselves back in Miami. For good.

· A version of this article appears in the Nation. Lucas Benitez's story, and many others, are chronicled in a new book called Shafted: Free Trade and America's Working Poor, published by the US thinktank Food First

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