Sunstroke in Cancún: WTO Can’t Take the Heat

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Synthesis/Regeneration 33   (Winter 2004)



Sunstroke in Cancún: WTO Can’t Take the Heat


by Amory Starr



The World Trade Organization is the cat’s meow for corporations seeking to scoop up the land, labor, natural resources, and markets of third world nations. With 146 member nations and sweeping powers to abridge their constitutions, the monster of multi-lateral trade deals efficiently eliminates pesky labor, environmental, product safety, precautionary principles, and investment regulations. For people who don’t stand to profit from liquidating national resources or wanton international trading, the WTO endangers every aspect of life and society.

Opposition to the WTO grew steadily throughout its first decade. Its 1999 third biannual Ministerial foundered on excellent street protests and third world solidarity in Seattle. Two years later, the ministers huddled in Qatar, where civil protest is illegal. Although the first world relaxed its demand for patent payments slightly to mollify African nations’ concerns with the HIV/AIDS crisis, concessions granted in Qatar are yet to be implemented.

Facing a burgeoning crisis of legitimacy, the WTO had to come back into the “sunshine” of public discourse. Arriving at the Vegas-esque hotel zone in Cancún, developing countries prepared for what they call “bullying” and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and activists held their breath, hoping beyond hope that bullying and bi-lateral sweet deals would be unsuccessful. While the WTO insulated the conference area with a 2 meter fence and three rows of riot cops to keep the protests well out of sight, 9km down the road, activists built medical clinics, campsites, an independent media center, held extensive educational meetings and conferences on issues ranging from biotechnology to water privatization, and taught each other how to make cardboard body armor, bracing for what they expected to be a particularly violent police response.

Farmers on the Doorstep

The largest of the activist groups present was Via Campesina, the international farmers’ organization representing 100 million farmers in 70 countries, which set up a headquarters complete with an eco-village, encampment, and meeting space for thousands of Mexican campesinos.

Smaller delegations of farmers associations came from all over the world, with the largest external delegation coming from Korea. Here were the supposed beneficiaries, camped on the WTO’s doorstep, saying that free trade in agriculture devastates farmers around the world.

Here were the supposed beneficiaries, camped on the WTO’s doorstep, saying that free trade in agriculture devastates farmers around the world.

WTO opponents staged two major marches and a number of smaller actions. On September 10, about eight thousand campesinos marched to the fence. Student delegations from México City accompanied the marchers, with internationals, as asked, at the back of the march. The very sturdy fence was successfully overturned with ferocious rage. Later in the day, the police hauled off its remains and fell back from km0 to a second fence at km1.

“WTO Kills Farmers”

Arriving at the fence, Lee Kyang, a 56 year old farmer and organizer, read the following statement: “I have mostly failed, as many other farm leaders elsewhere have failed…[We] Korean farmers realized that our destinies are no longer in our own hands. We cannot seem to do anything to stop the waves that have destroyed our communities where we have been settled for hundred of years…For whom do you [WTO] negotiate now? For the people, or for yourselves?” Wearing a sign saying “WTO Kills Farmers” he then climbed atop the fence and committed suicide with a knife to the heart. His death was immediately described by Via Campesina as one of too many farmers’ deaths occurring around the world, by suicide and other means, all of which are the responsibility of the WTO.

His death was immediately described by Via Campesina as one of too many farmers’ deaths occurring around the world…

The suicide equated the anti-globalization movement with the anti-war movements, since the latter birthed the 20th century tradition of suicide as a protest tactic. Kyang’s act echoed the thousands of farmers’ suicides (usually by drinking pesticides) taking place across India, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The intersection at km0 was spontaneously renamed “Plaza Lee” and all over the city graffiti was placed reading “Lee Vive” and “Todos somos Kyang” (“We are all Kyang”)—a concept popularized by the Zapatistas.

The other major march was the Mexican unions (syndicales) march on September 13 . This time, the assault on the second fence was studious, organized, and included the use of the bolt cutters. The Koreans brought ropes for pulling and there was an independent women’s assault. The major complaint about the day was “not enough tools for everyone.”

“Get Rid of Them All”

Activists also mounted a number of smaller, direct actions. On September 9, a number of persons spelled out “NO WTO” with their naked bodies on the beach inside the security zone. On September 12, a group hung a banner from a large orange crane directly across the street from the convention center. It read “Que se Vayan Todos” (Get Rid of Them All, a phrase of the recent popular uprisings in Argentina). On the evening of September 12, hundreds of activists, disguising themselves as tourists, sauntered, holding hands and drinking Pepsi, into the shopping malls in the Hotel Zone. The great majority were profiled in the sweeps of the public buses at the roadblocks, and hustled back to town, but about 80 eluded the profiling, joined together at the Convention Center at the appointed moment, and blocked the Zone’s only road for several hours.

Then, midway through the final day of the meetings (September 14), as the press braced for a long night and developing countries weighed the costs of staying for several more days of bullying, the meetings abruptly collapsed.

Suddenly, the solidarity among the rapidly expanding G21 group of developing countries fighting exports of heavily-subsidized US agriculture (called “dumping” by the third world) was not the WTO’s biggest problem. At around 2:15 pm Kenya and Uganda led an exodus from a small “Green Room” meeting in which the US & EU were pressing the developing countries to accept negotiations on the Singapore Issues (investment, competition, services, and government procurement). The news ripped through the conference that the walkout meant the collapse of the Ministerial.

“The Developing Countries do not agree to be colonized”

Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South (Philippines) announced that “the Developing Countries have said ‘Ya Basta.’..It is a crisis of legitimacy for the WTO and a victory for the developing countries. Whether the WTO will survive this, I doubt. Two failed Ministerials are hard to survive.” Anuradha Mittal of Food First described the collapse as a “huge slap in the face of the the EU and US. The developing countries do not agree to be colonized.” Soon a triumphant group from the G21, without waiting for the Director-General, announced that the meetings were over. Jubilation swept through the conference center. Interestingly the US mainstream media has downplayed this stunning defeat.

“…the Developing Countries have said ‘Ya Basta.’..It is a crisis of legitimacy for the WTO…”

An hour later, the petulant US Trade Rep was describing the problem as a conflict between “ ‘can do’ and ‘won’t do’ countries.” He also characterized the G21 countries as “focused on rhetoric” and “unwilling to focus on work, ambition, and flexibility.” The US Secretary of Agriculture, reeling from the defeat, repeated the post-Seattle accusation that “the real losers” are the countries which most need the WTO in order to alleviate poverty. In the press pit, there was monumental disinterest in this tired line.

Free Trade is an imperialist war

Several activists in their public statements during the meetings emphasized that the anti-globalization movement is the same as the anti-war movement. John Ross stated that “The globalization of free trade is as much a strategy for world domination as is military invasion and occupation…Free trade is a soft weapon…but it is no less devastating.” He described how people who served as human shields in Iraq now face prison for “trading with the enemy” while US corporations dump biotech corn in México and Tyson chicken in Iraq. Next the US moves to expand NAFTA to all of Latin America, in a Free Trade Area of the Americas which includes the worst of the proposed WTO agreements.
Amory Starr, an anti-globalization activist and scholar, spent 10 days in Cancún with a documentary film crew from Boulder and Denver, focusing on the Mexican experience with NAFTA as a basis for understanding the potential impacts of and opposition to the WTO. She is the author of Naming the Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements Confront Globalization and the forthcoming Anti-Globalization: A User’s Manual, both published by Zed Books, London.

[14 dec 03]

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