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The AFL-CIO has decided not to participate in an unprecedented forum this month designed to give labor, environmental and other nonbusiness groups an official opportunity to express their concerns about the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. The nation’s largest confederation of labor unions said its members can’t afford the $80 registration fee for attending the forum, scheduled for Nov. 17-19 at the Marriott Courtyard and Clarion hotels in downtown Miami. The labor group plans to conduct its own forum instead. But other groups have decided to participate in the forum, which was scheduled to counter criticisms that the FTAA trade accord process was an undemocratic one. The AFL-CIO’s decision signals continuing disagreements among organized critics of the hemispheric free trade effort about how best to influence the progress of the talks. In the past, groups that did participate have been criticized by those that chose not to. The giant labor confederation’s decision was criticized by FTAA conference organizers. The executive director of the ministerial meeting, former U.S. Ambassador Luis Lauredo, who has trumpeted this month’s FTAA conferences in Miami as the most open and inclusive ever, called the labor group’s decision “deeply disappointing.” The FTAA ministerial meeting will take place in Miami from Nov. 19-21. It is the eighth ministerial meeting since December 1994, at which time every nation in the Americas except Cuba agreed to establish a hemispheric free trade zone by January 2005. A successful Miami conference is considered vital if the deadline is to be met. EQUAL TIME Unlike at previous FTAA ministerial meetings, nonbusiness organizations — which have been dubbed “civil society” groups by FTAA conference organizers to distinguish them from other critics of globalized trade — will be allowed to convene a forum within the conference’s security perimeter. Perhaps even more important, the civil society groups participating in the forum will be granted the same amount of time as business groups to make recommendations to trade ministers from the 34 western hemispheric nations on crafting the free trade accord. But many FTAA critics are deeply skeptical that their views will carry any sway with the ministers. On Tuesday night, at an FTAA panel discussion in Miami sponsored by the University of Florida’s law school and the Daily Business Review, a representative of the AFL-CIO announced that the organization would not participate in the civil society forum. She said the registration fee was too expensive and that the Dante B. Fascell North-South Center at the University of Miami, which organized the forum, did not properly consult the labor group. “We were not consulted as to how the forum would be set up or what the parameters would be,” Thea M. Lee, the AFL-CIO’s assistant director for international economics in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday “We thought it was appropriate they would ask some of the larger civil society groups our view. We were a bit insulted when they didn’t.” Instead, Lee said, the AFL-CIO would conduct its own forum at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami and that it would invite the trade ministers to participate. At the Tuesday discussion, Lauredo blasted the labor group’s decision. “I fought to get civil society equal time with the ministers,” said Lauredo, an international and governmental relations consultant with Hunton & Williams in Miami. “You are making a mockery of it.” Robin L. Rosenberg, deputy director of the North-South Center in Miami who is organizing the civil society event at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s request, also criticized the AFL-CIO’s decision. “If Thea Lee and her constituents can get to Miami to protest, they can afford the $80 credentialing fee,” he said. Former U.S. Ambassador Amber H. Moss Jr., who is director of the North-South Center, added that the labor group’s move is unusual because “if you go back and think of NAFTA and two side agreements, labor participated quite robustly whereas environmental groups more held back.” As a result, according to Moss, the labor side agreements in NAFTA were stronger than the environmental ones because labor participated more actively. “In contrast, the environmental groups are more actively engaged now,” he said. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not return calls for comment. At the Tuesday town meeting discussion, dozens of labor union members who attended peppered Lauredo with questions. “This reminds me of my radical days at Columbia [University],” Lauredo said at one point. SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT As at past FTAA conferences, business groups will meet two days before trade negotiations begin to develop recommendations, which then will be presented to the national trade ministers. The meeting of the business groups, called the Americas Business Forum (ABF), will take place at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami from Nov. 17 to Nov. 19. In a new feature, civil society groups will have their own forum, called the Americas Trade and Sustainable Development Forum (ATSDF). This forum, which the AFL-CIO will not participate in, will meet at the same time to discuss social, environmental, and political issues related to trade. The sponsors of the ATSDF include, in addition to the North-South Center, the Institute for Sustainable Development in Canada, the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Argentina and Centro Ecuatoriano de Derecho Ambiental in Ecuador. On Nov. 19, both the ABF and ATSDF will have 90 minutes to make their recommendation to the national trade ministers before official negotiations begin. “This is the most open diplomatic and trade process ever undertaken,” Lauredo said at Tuesday’s panel discussion. “It is unprecedented.” Since the 1994 Presidential Summit of the Americas in Miami, when hemispheric leaders launched the proposed free-trade process, critics have charged that FTAA negotiations were being undertaken out of public view and with limited public input. “Before the Buenos Aires ministerial meeting in 2001, one of the complaints was that this was a secret process,” said Carl Cira, who is director of the Summit of the Americas Center at Florida International University and chair of the ABF’s technical committee. “So the response was to make the negotiating document public.” In 2001, the 34 nations put the latest draft FTAA agreement online and published comments from business groups on the FTAA Internet site. “This is the first trade agreement that has been disclosed in public like this,” said Gilbert Lee Sandler, of Sandler Travis & Rosenberg, a veteran trade attorney who has advised the U.S. government on various international trade issues including the FTAA. Sandler noted that governments usually keep international trade agreements secret while they are being negotiated. Yet critics still contend that too much is being done out of public view. They note that the ABF — which is charging $400 per person for registration — has not allowed the news media to cover its deliberations, and that it’s not allowing media to attend this year either. “It is counterproductive to close off the session to the press,” Rosenberg said. “It only feeds the notion that the private sector has some sort of cozy relationship with governments and the rest of civil society is locked out.” Lauredo said the ABF is discussing opening its meeting. The ATSDF meeting will be open to news media and anyone who pays the registration fee. INTERNAL DISCORD? Lee denied that the AFL-CIO’s decision not to participate in the ATSDF is a sign of internal discord between organizations skeptical or outright against the FTAA. “Some of the [civil society] organizations have chosen to participate, and we have no quarrel with that,” Lee said. “It’s not a question of quarreling but of organizations doing what is best for their members.” Rosenberg recalled that the last FTAA ministerial conference in Quito, Ecuador in November 2002 was marred by a bitter dispute between groups that were critical of the proposed FTAA trade accord. At that conference, the Ecuadorean trade minister asked a variety of civil society organizations to make presentations to the trade ministers. But Rosenberg said that the groups that agreed to make presentations — most of them environmental organizations — were repudiated by other protest groups. “They were yelling, ‘You don’t represent civil society,’ ” Rosenberg said. “ The ministers were totally appalled.” Rosenberg cautioned that this month’s planned ATSDF is not an effort to represent all of civil society. Indeed, many groups have scheduled protests in Miami during the FTAA ministerial conference. Those will take place independent of any official FTAA forums or ministerial deliberations. According to the AFL-CIO Internet site, “tens of thousands of union members, community allies, workers’ and human rights activists” will come to Miami to protest the FTAA. The labor group has criticized the proposed accord as something that “would expand to the entire Western Hemisphere (except Cuba) the low wages, lax environmental laws and weak worker protections that flowed from the North American Free Trade Agreement.” “We can’t pretend to represent the length and breadth of civil society,” Rosenberg said. “I look at it as a division of labor. Some groups have made the choice to use the street to make noise and others to play a more inside-outside role.”

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