They are convinced that the 34-country agreement will cause the destruction of their homegrown industries and ride roughshod over national environmental protection and labour laws.
This is no bun fight – the results of the negotiations, expected to conclude in 2005, will have an impact for decades on more than 800 million people across the Americas, from the top of the Canadian mountains to the tip of Chilean Andes.
The size of the pie is vast. There is $13 trillion of economic production across the 34 countries, which would comprise the FTAA (Alca in Spanish/Portuguese).
“Alca means the dismantling of nations and their transformation into colonies to be exploited by the US,” says Roberto Morales, a member of the Campaign Against Alca.
Peter Allgeier, an FTAA official hit
“If Alca becomes a reality, we will not have industry, we will not have health, we will not have education and we will not have public services,” he says.
“Latin America will be under the absolute control of the United States,” says Morales.
Only Cuba sits outside the negotiating table.
With Mexico and Canada already part of the North American Free Trade Agreement that came into effect in 1994, there is only one major economic player vying with the US, and that is Brazil.
“We will not oppose Alca, but the US must know that Brazil for the very first time will be tough in defending its interests,” says a spokesman for the governing Workers’ Party.
“Alca without Brazil doesn’t make sense, and Latin America without Brazil doesn’t represent much,” the spokesman says.
With the left-of-centre Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as Brazil’s president, there is a chance that there will be no deal.
In opposition, the firebrand Lula had stated it was tantamount to “the annexation of Latin America”.
After coming to power, Lula offended the long-time US trade representative Robert Zoellick saying he would not deal with the “subordinate of the subordinate of the subordinate” of President George Bush on such a vital issue.
Brazil’s leading news weekly, Veja, pictured on it’s cover Brazil as a little chicken squaring up to a vast domineering eagle, with the catch line: “Courage or stupidity?”
Lula as an opposition leader
Agricultural subsidies, tariffs on orange juice, intellectual property rights and investment rules have been at the centre of the dispute.
The “gas war” in Bolivia, which saw the downfall of President Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada in October, cuts to the heart of what many people feel the FTAA is all about – advancing the interests of dominant US multinational corporations.
Recently, a diverse collection of groups marched 90km to the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami, under the collective banner “Root Cause”.
Around 100 representatives of The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Miami Workers Centre, Power U Centre for Social Change and Low-Income Families Fighting Together spent several days walking the symbolic distance.
“Each mile is a mile for the oppressed, a country that is going to feel the consequences of the FTAA,” they explain.
Brazil was part of the G-22 countries, which wrecked the recent World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun.
“Alca without Brazil doesn’t make sense, and Latin America without Brazil doesn’t represent much”
It could manage this because of a formidable alliance with China and India.
But within the FTAA negotiations, and without China and India, Brazil cannot punch with the same power.
While George Bush is on a high-profile visit to London, his younger brother Jeb Bush, the Florida governor, is hogging the limelight. He said that the agreement “should reflect the particular and unique concerns of each country”.
And that appears to be happening.
There has suddenly emerged an “unthinkable alliance” between Brazil and the US. They have agreed on a draft declaration, dubbed “Alca light”, a watered down version of the original document with opt-out clauses for every country.
“Before Brazil was attacking the fort. Now, with the agreement of the US, we entered the fort. It is always easier to be defending than attacking,” said Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Filipe de Macedo Soares.
Other Latin American countries such as Chile already have a bilateral free trade deal with the US. Moreover, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru are in negotiations this week for their own versions.