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Home of free trade

Depending on who is talking, this city is on either the verge of global domination or the edge of the apocalypse.

It's all because of a dull-sounding meeting this month of foreign trade ministers.

The meeting is the latest in a decadelong negotiating process to bring down tariffs throughout the hemisphere. The idea is to create what would be the largest common market in the world, known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Advocates of free trade say the agreement would mark a watershed in relations between the United States and Latin America, providing an enormous boost to trade from which Florida is uniquely poised to gain.

But critics of free trade say it has created unemployment as small companies are unable to compete with multinational corporations. City and state officials are bracing for the arrival of tens of thousands of "antiglobalization" demonstrators opposed to the FTAA.

Miami officials are doubly eager to see the birth of the FTAA. The city's airports and seaports would not only see a large rise in commerce, but Miami also hopes to cash in by being chosen as the headquarters of the FTAA secretariat. Passage of the FTAA and the establishment of Miami as its home are considered vital to the city's global future, they say.

Jorge Arrizurieta, director of Florida FTAA Inc., the group leading the state's lobbying effort, recently reeled off a long list of reasons why Miami is "the undisputed gateway to the Americas." Among them: 1,196 weekly flights to the other 33 FTAA nations, the largest Latin American consular corps in the United States, the city's large foreign banking center, and Florida's No. 1 container port.

Miami faces several competing bids, including those from Atlanta, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. "That's why we are out there leaving no stone unturned," Arrizurieta says.

A politically well-connected Cuban-American, Arrizurieta has made numerous trips all over Latin America seeking to promote the FTAA and Miami's role in it.

"These are exciting times for Miami," Manuel Mencia, a leading Florida trade official, told a Miami business forum last week.

"Miami is at the epicenter of one of the most ambitious projects in history," added Mencia, a senior vice president at Enterprise Florida, the group responsible for the state's trade and economic development.

Enterprise Florida published a report in May forecasting what the FTAA would mean for the state. It predicted: 89,259 new jobs, $157-million in additional tax revenue and a $13.6-billion rise in economic output. The report, which also was authored by Antonio Villamil, a senior economic adviser for Gov. Jeb Bush, has become a major lobbying tool for the free trade cause.

But critics say Miami's bid may be premature, and that the FTAA agreement is still a long way from meeting a 2005 deadline. Major stumbling blocks remain, including the thorny issue of U.S. farm subsidies.

Political instability and economic woes in several Latin American countries also have not helped. "The stakes are really high as populism is sweeping the region and democracy itself is being questioned," said Eric Farnsworth, a trade expert at the Council of the Americas, an influential business organization in New York.

A recent poll of more than 500 government officials and opinion makers in Latin America found that only 18 percent want their economies more integrated with the United States. Most believe the trade deal would benefit the United States far more than their own economies.

Florida finds itself in the awkward position of hosting the trade meeting Nov. 20-21 while at the same time seeking to protect its own citrus and sugar industries from foreign competition. The citrus industry recently hired Tampa Bay Bucs coach John Gruden for a series of TV ads advocating a 28.7 cents per gallon tariff on imported orange juice from Brazil. Florida's $9-billion citrus industry is also seeking a $240-million bailout this year to compensate for low prices from overproduction.

"Free trade is not necessarily about lifting every barrier and opening all borders," Arrizurieta said. "Every country has a sacred cow, or something they are trying to protect."

Some economists question the figures in the Enterprise Florida report, which assumes the construction of a $25-million secretariat building with a staff of 200 on $80,000 salaries. "Why should there be a significant secretariat at all?" said University of Texas economist Kenneth Flamm, noting that the nearly decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada does not have one.

"NAFTA is basically run out of a suitcase, and U.S. trade with Mexico is substantially larger than U.S. trade with the rest of Latin America combined," Flamm said.

The authors of the report concede the methodology used is not precise and was based on "optimum" projections. "It's all hypothetical, but grounded in some science," said Sena Black, head of research and marketing at Enterprise Florida.

The report's optimistic job creation forecast also did not factor in possible losses in some sectors. Critics of free trade argue that Florida has lost as many as 27,000 jobs as a result of NAFTA over the last decade. "History has shown that free trade doesn't work and favors international corporations at the cost of jobs and the environment," said Eric Rubin, state coordinator of the St. Petersburg-based Florida Fair Trade Coalition.

Economists say that while it's true there are winners and losers in every free trade agreement, nobody knows precisely how many jobs were gained or lost in the United States because of NAFTA. Too many other economic factors play an equally or more important role in the job market, they say.

The Florida Fair Trade Coalition is one of dozens of labor, environmental and student groups planning protest marches and educational workshops in Miami during the meeting this month. As many as 50,000 protesters are expected from all over the country.

In preparation, Miami's chief federal judge has announced that the downtown federal courthouses will be closed during the entire meeting, and cruise lines are arranging to move ships from the port of Miami to Fort Lauderdale, affecting tens of thousands of passengers. Storeowners in the downtown area near the FTAA conference hotel, the Intercontinental, worry that streets will be closed and business shut down.

Protesters complain that they are being collectively branded as violent. "They are playing a game saying if you are against FTAA you are bad people," said Charlie Cox, with the Miami city employees union. "They say the protesters are going to go out with sticks and stones and disrupt downtown. That's not going to happen."

FTAA opponents are especially upset over a proposed ordinance drafted by the Miami city commission that would restrict what protesters may carry, including limits on the length and width of wooden or plastic objects, as well as materials used to make signs.

Miami officials are working closely with many of the groups over permits for protest sites. Even so, concern remains high that extremists will provoke disturbances. City officials want to avoid a repeat of ugly clashes with police in Seattle during free trade talks in 1999.

"The city of Miami and the police are well aware that of the overwhelming majority of people who are coming to Miami will be here to peacefully exercise their right to speak," the chairwoman of the city's Community Relations Board, Brenda Shapiro, told a public hearing Wednesday attended by FTAA opponents.

"It's also naive to believe that there are not people who are willing to disrupt the peaceful protest."

_ David Adams can be reached at dadamssptimes.com or (305) 361-6393.

The advent of the Free Trade Area of the Americas could boost Miami's travel and transport industries. The city has the state's No. 1 container port, seen in this view from atop a gantry crane.

Jorge L. Arrizurieta, executive director of Florida Free Trade Area of the Americas Inc., stands outside his office in the Biltmore Hotel on Thursday.

Jorge Arrizurieta speaks during a meeting of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce at the Biltmore Hotel-Coral Gables in Miami. "Free trade is not necessarily about lifting every barrier and opening all borders," Arrizurieta says. "Every country has a sacred cow, or something they are trying to protect."

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