Farmworkers, other activists begin free trade protests

17.Nov.03    Análisis y Noticias

November 17, 2003

DANIA — Condemning free trade agreements and
accusing corporate America
of contributing to the poverty of millions, a
group of about 200 students,
seniors and low-income individuals joined the
Coalition of Immokalee
Workers on Sunday in the kickoff of an ambitious
march to Miami.
A peaceful yet spirited crowd of anti-trade
supporters arrived here today
after a 12-mile, 80-plus degree weather march
that started in Oakland Park
in Broward County, where opponents of the
proposed Free Trade Area of the
Americas, or FTTA, summit that convened to
express their disdain for the

The FTTA summit begins today in downtown Miami.

Summit critics charge the agreement pushes for
corporate globalization,
while neglecting social services and labor

Root Cause The People’s March, a coalition of
grassroots organizations
including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers,
took to the streets of
Broward cities such as Fort Lauderdale and Dania
to demonstrate against
FTAA. Two Miami organizations, Miami Workers
Center and Power U., also
were part of the Root Cause march.
Toting signs, dancing, or chanting, march
participants vowed to send a
strong message to the Bush administration, one
that is often criticized
for its connections to special interest groups,
big corporations and

Clad in a yellow T-shirt representing the Root
Cause coalition, Immokalee
farmworker Gerardo Reyes Chavez took to a
megaphone to share his views on,
what he said, is the current exploitation of
laborers at the expense of
greedy corporations.

“We’re here because we as workers understand and
live what free trade
agreements bring to our lives,” said Chavez, 25.
FTTA would replace the current North American
Free Trade Agreement, known
as NAFTA, that fosters trade agreements among the
United States, Canada
and Mexico. The FTTA would expand NAFTA to 34
countries in the western
hemisphere, with the exception of communist Cuba.

The coalition’s three-day march to Miami, which
ends Tuesday, is 34 miles
to represent each of the 34 nations under the
proposed FTAA.
Sunday’s kickoff drew heavy policing by deputies
from the Broward County
Sheriff’s Office and officers from the Fort
Lauderdale police department,
who kept the marchers safe from traffic.

At one point during the eight-hour march, about
four dozen officers
patrolled U.S. 1, a South Florida main
thoroughfare that the marchers
chose as their route because the road leads
straight to Miami. On
horseback, bikes, and in marked and unmarked
patrol cars, officers flooded
U.S. 1 with sirens and flashing lights to escort
the marchers. Greg Asbed,
an Immokalee coalition leader, said the group had
obtained a permit to
demonstrate. Police, he said, were being “very

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is among the
groups that criticize
NAFTA’s role in Mexico, saying the impoverished
in that Spanish-speaking
country have been negatively affected by NAFTA.
“What these agreements have done is create a lot
of poverty for other
countries,” said Romeo Ramirez, a coalition
member originally from
Guatemala. “A lot of us arrive here to work, but
we are controlled by the
large corporations.”

Coalition members said the two-year boycott they
have been waging against
fast-food giant Taco Bell is one example of how
companies are “merely
interested in profits and not in fair treatment
of human beings,” Ramirez

“The poor people in this country have had to
resort to sweatshop-like
conditions in the fields,” he added. “There has
to be a solution for this;
FTTA is not a solution.”

Ramirez and two other Immokalee coalition
members, Lucas Benitez and Julia
Gabriel, were named this year’s recipients of the
Robert F. Kennedy Human
Rights Award, for which a ceremony in Washington,
D.C., is scheduled this

Immokalee coalition member Mateo Aguilar, a
Guatemalan-born tomato picker,
said he is fed up with the “continued
exploitation of human beings.”
Root Cause maintains that FTAA’s planned
corporate globalization would not
only infringe on the rights of the poor, it would
have a negative impact
on poor communities and inner-city areas
throughout the country because
social services are among those governmental
roles that would become

Marchers took plenty of shots at the Bush
administration during the march.
A rhyming chant about the president was exactly
what some needed to stay
motivated throughout the long march.
“Hey Bush, you can’t hide; We can see your greedy
side” and “Bush says
FTAA; we say no way” were among the most popular
rhymes demonstrators

Benitez, an Immokalee coalition leader, said he
was pleased with the
turnout of support and friendship that march
participants displayed.
Benitez, who is originally from Mexico, said
NAFTA did nothing to help
Mexico. Instead, it created a system where huge
companies line their
pockets while the farmworker in America remains
impoverished, he said.
Free trade agreements “force us out of our
country and when we come here,
they exploit us,” said Benitez, 28. “It’s all a
big chain.”
Root Cause contends Mexico’s experience with
NAFTA has been disastrous for
the Latin American nation. The group says some of
the most obvious and
detrimental effects of NAFTA with relation to
Mexico include:

– It has plunged 4 million people into severe
poverty, surviving on less
than $2 a day;
– It has forced more than 600 family farmers off
their lands every day as
a result of unfair competition.

– From 1993 to 1999, the average manufacturing
wages fell more than 20
percent, while minimum wage fell 18 percent.
Proponents of free trade argue that FTAA will
establish more jobs and
higher living standards, in addition to a better
relationship with the 34
countries who would become free trade partners.
Among the stops marchers made Sunday was to Point
Blank, an Oakland
Park-based company that specializes in military
There, a group of company workers, composed of
Hispanics and Haitians,
waited to join the march and spoke out against
their employer.
“There are too many people working without
getting paid,” said Victoria
Venegas, 42, who was born in Nicaragua. “People
work so much and they are
not even allowed to get a sip of water in there.”
Her co-worker, Jorge Ramos, who is Cuban,

“We had a hunger strike recently because things
are just so bad at Point
Blank,” he said. “They violate the federal labor
laws, which are already
weak enough.”
Officials from Point Blank could not be reached
for comment.

Sunday’s 12-mile march culminated at about 6 p.m.
at Frost Park in Dania,
where farmworkers and their supporters would eat,
relax and get ready for
today’s continued march through Broward County
before entering Miami-Dade

Despite the heat and exhaustion and the energy
required to keep on
marching today, coalition members pledged their
commitment to the cause.
Jean-Claude Jean, a Haitian from Immokalee who
picks watermelons, assured
he knew all about the proposed FTAA. Free trade
agreements also have hurt
his homeland, he said.

“We know the realities of free trade from our
home in Haiti,” said Jean,
36. “We already live in a deep enough misery; we
don’t need more by the
FTAA.” Exhaustion would not stop his plight, Jean

“We could walk another 30 miles right now,” he
said, following the 12-mile
walk that ended in Dania. “We’re defending
ourselves; we’ve got to do