FTAA and Me

Looking out for number one, what's in this for Miami?

There are two things to keep in mind about this "free" trade debate, at least in Miami. On one hand, the trade agreement (if it is approved) will have far-reaching yet only vaguely understood effects on economic, political, and social sectors in every part of the Western Hemisphere -- including our so-called Capital of the Americas. The other issue is whether having the secretariat anchored here will boost our local economy. On that point at least, FTAA friends and foes alike agree that if we must have a trade agreement, we might as well put its frat house somewhere with an abundance of swanky restaurants.

But what would the FTAA really mean to Miami? A dizzyingly optimistic and worryingly speculative report published by Enterprise Florida, a public-private business-development group, claims the state stands to gain up to 89,000 jobs, $13.6 billion in economic growth, and better sex for everyone (okay, maybe only for the corporate honcho who can use his executive credit card to keep an escort service on retainer). If the headquarters were in Miami, it would stand to reason that a good chunk of whatever growth occurs would be concentrated here.

But hype and slogans aside, no one knows exactly what FTAA will do for Miami, admits Carl Cira, director of FIU's Summit of the Americas Center. "Any expansion of trade will produce increased economic activity, so it will probably be good in the long run for everyone," Cira opines. "The question is: Are there going to be more winners than losers? And who will they be?"

In thinking about this question, first look at Miami's economy. By far the largest local employer is government -- the school system, Miami-Dade County, state and federal agencies, Jackson Memorial Hospital, local colleges, and the municipalities. According to numbers compiled by the Beacon Council in 2002, the ten largest public employers accounted for about 128,000 jobs. By comparison, the ten largest private employers (American Airlines, University of Miami, Baptist Health Systems of South Florida, Precision Response Corporation, BellSouth, MasTec, Publix, Royal Caribbean, Florida Power & Light, and Mount Sinai Medical Center) accounted for less than half that number of jobs (about 52,000). FTAA critics say the agreement as currently drafted encourages privatization and commercialization of services, which, if carried to a logical extreme, would have a major effect on jobs and wages in Miami-Dade County. On one hand, the efficiencies of privatization nearly always result in fewer jobs and lower pay for workers. But then again, if our public services are going to continue to privatize anyway, theoretically the increased trade brought by FTAA would create new jobs elsewhere. So if Joe the school bus driver loses his job this year, maybe next year he'll be driving a semi full of Brazilian oranges out of the airport.

Most of Miami's jobs arise from small and medium-size businesses, many of which center around our main industries of tourism and trade. Some local sectors, like Miami's small but scrappy textile industry, could easily be free-traded out of existence by competitors using cheaper labor and materials, and less stringent environmental regulations. Then again, if Latin America doesn't get them, China eventually will anyway.

Miami may not stand to lose much in the way of manufacturing jobs, but that's only because few such jobs survived the exodus of large companies in the Eighties and Nineties. The Florida Fair Trade Coalition notes that the North American Free Trade Agreement has not been kind to Miami-Dade County, claiming that eight major local factories closed their doors and moved to Mexico during the Nineties.

Another industry that could take a hit is local agriculture, which was battered by Mexican competitors after the implementation of NAFTA in 1994. But it remains unclear whether Brazil's lobbying efforts, or those of Florida's sugar and citrus industries, will win out in the negotiations regarding protective tariffs and price supports. In Miami-Dade, of course, this issue may soon be all but moot. Our rapacious developers (many of whom heartily back FTAA) are greedily covering as much available farmland as possible with yet more ill-considered suburban planning nightmares that lack adequate roads, schools, or services. Thank you, Armando Codina, Lennar Corp., Steve Shiver, Jeb Bush, and the esteemed board of county commissioners.

Yet all is not necessarily lost. While Miami has almost no manufacturing and shrinking farmland, it is still a major crossroads for people and things. A large proportion of the nation's air exports to Latin America and the Caribbean already pass through Miami International Airport, so increased trade would clearly benefit local companies in the import-export business. FTAA would also likely be a bonanza for lawyers, consultants, bankers, and other white-collar professionals who feed at the intersection of politics and commerce.

The real question is whether the working poor in Greater Miami (an ever-growing group owing to economic migration) will be getting any of these new jobs, and whether the jobs will pay well enough to allow them to begin the slow crawl toward the middle class. Skeptics are many. "We are a community of great divides," Gihan Perera, executive director of the Miami Workers Center, declared at a recent FTAA forum. "The FTAA will not only not help us turn the tide, it will only make poverty and inequity worse." $

 
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