By Leilani Nisperos
Special to La Prensa
Hundreds of chanting protesters crossed the border from San Ysidro into Tijuana last Saturday for a bi-national march against the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement. The march was part of a three-day long event held in solidarity with protesters gathering in Quebec, Canada, where heads of state from 34 Western Hemisphere governments met to discuss the accord.
Organizers of the event say the FTAA would increase profits for multinational companies while worsening poverty, work-ing and environmental conditions for employees throughout the region. Mary Grillo, executive director of SEIU Local 2028, spoke at a Friday night meeting, and called the FTAA "a race to the bottom for all of us."
"We say no to a world where company CEOs earn 470 times what a worker does," said Medea Benjamin of the Green Party. "That is not democracy." Benjamin ran for vice president with Ralph Nader in recent elections.
The FTAA is a proposed trade agreement that would in effect expand the North American Free Trade Agreement, which affects the U.S., Canada and Mexico, to all democratic governments within the region. Governments in support of the FTAA pledged last weekend to ratify an agreement by 2005.
The agreement would reduce taxes on goods imported from member countries, and allow free trade throughout the Western Hemisphere. It would compete with trade blocks such as the European Union. The EU is a group of European nations that has banded together for a variety of reasons, including increased economic power.
Cuba would be excluded from the FTAA because the U.S. State Department considers the country a "totalitarian state." Cuban President Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and declared the government a socialist state in 1961.
Free trade advocates say the FTAA would increase living standards in third world countries in the Western Hemisphere and benefit the San Diego area. The Stop the FTAA Coalition, a group involved in organizing the event, charges NAFTA with sending 500,000 U.S. jobs to other countries, and with intimidating union organizers abroad. Other groups point to weakened environmental, health and safety laws. The Sierra Youth Coalition alleges that since NAFTA started, pollution in Mexico has doubled.
The groups say the FTAA would cripple the ability of governments to enforce their own environmental laws. According to the Stop the FTAA Coalition, the California-based Metalclad company has sued the state of San Luis Potosi in Mexico for not allowing the construction of a hazardous waste dump.
Other critics of the agreement say NAFTA has increased poverty in Mexico since it started in 1994, and believes that the FTAA would only spread increased poverty to the rest of Latin America.
According to the Union Tribune, at the Canadian event Mexican President Vincente Fox reiterated some of those concerns. "Trade has helped people in Latin America, but has failed to root out poverty," Fox said. "There is a lot to celebrate, but there is also a lot to lament."
The three-day event held here began with educational sessions and speeches at the First Unitarian Church in Hillcrest on Friday. The Saturday march to the border started with a rally at Larson Park in San Ysidro, and ended with a concert in Playas de Tijuana. On Sunday a cross-border conference was held in Tijuana.
Protesters in San Ysidro came from a variety of groups, from AFL-CIO labor leadership and environmental organizations to a group of anarchists that called themselves the Black Block.
A spokesman for the San Diego Police department said 700 to 1,000 protestors attended the Saturday event, which officers describes as "relatively mellow."
"There was some dancing, some singing. No one was arrested and no one was hurt," said Bill Robinson, a spokesman for the department, who said 35 officers were in San Ysidro as backup, but were never called out. A minor disagreement started in Larson Park between protesters and police when officers stopped a young Latino and searched his pockets because they thought he had a knife. The crowd started chanting, "Let him go!" and officers released the young man after finding nothing.
The event was organized by a group called the "Red de los Globalifobicos," a network of organizations based in Tijuana and throughout California.