Global South and Anti-Corporate Activists Clinch Major Victory at Cancun WTO Summit

by Soren Ambrose

The fifth World Trade Organization ministerial conference has ended in Cancun, Mexico, and the measure of the organization’s worth can again be seen by the fact that for the majority of its member countries (as well as the non-governmental organizations and street protesters who plague it), the outcome–no agreement whatsoever–was precisely the greatest triumph they could have hoped for. When the day will come that governments begin to question the point of remaining in an organization they are mostly seeking to stall is an open question, but it certainly seemed to draw much closer in Cancun.

As at other international summits, Cancun had an “inside” and an “outside”–that is, opponents of the institution were to be found both in street protests and inside the meeting hall, where they attempted to counter the full-time media spinners employed by the wealthy governments. And as at the November 1999 protests in Seattle, these two forces–together with dissatisfied delegations from developing countries–all share credit for preventing the WTO from reaching an agreement. The greatest part, however, was played by the blind arrogance of the imperialist-capitalist nexus formed by the governments of the United States, Canada, Japan and the European Union.

Opponents of the WTO came from at least 40 countries. The numbers were smaller than some predicted–particularly those influenced by the inflated-expectations game now a familiar part of local authorities’ fear-as-fundraising tactics at each “globalization” gathering. Many articles had predicted 50,000 protesters, with one or two simply doubling that number to hype it even more. But organizers in Mexico always knew that such numbers were unlikely to materialize in Cancun, which was chosen for the summit because of the difficulty of organizing protests there. Indeed, the city itself is largely a product of contemporary globalization: the year-round inhabitants are mostly internal migrants drawn by the approximately 100 resort hotels catering to foreign tourists that have popped up in the last 30 years along the beautiful Caribbean coast. The workers often receive daily wages roughly equivalent to the price charged for two 20-ounce bottles of water in the Hyatt, Marriott, or Ritz Carlton resorts, and the city of Cancun–as distinct from the 21-kilometer strip of land where the bulk of the hotels stand–is dominated by districts with limited or no public services such as water. Gazing upon huge swimming pools lined up along the Gulf of Mexico must provoke vertigo for those who commute every day from the poorest parts of Cancun.

There were probably about 10,000 people at the height of the protests, maybe a few more. And despite the worldwide call for solidarity actions on September 13 (Saturday), the peak of the protests actually came earlier, on Wednesday, September 10. That was the day reserved for the peasants and farmers, or campesinos. Among the speeches that started the day were those recorded by two prominent Zapatista leaders and played for the assembled campesinos and international activists. Commandante Esther issued a hard-hitting message that focussed on gender relations, both global and local–which is to say both within the capitalist world and the revolutionary movements like the Zapatistas. Subcommandante Marcos’s statement was a more generic welcome to activists from around the world to southern Mexico, one which put a sort of official seal of Zapatista approval on the actions in the Yucatan peninsula.

Led by Via Campesina, the international network of small-scale agricultural producers, Wednesday’s march was both spirited and somber, conscious of the gravity of the issues of agricultural subsidies, which were center-stage at summit, for small farmers around the world. A contingent of nearly 200 farmers came from South Korea, along with some members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

The march on Wednesday had several contingents. The Mexican and Latin American campesinos generally sought to avoid direct confrontation with the authorities. But Mexican students, many of them masked, were more daring. And the Korean delegation seemed the most determined of all, though the language barrier made it difficult to know exactly what was in the offing. The Koreans ended up surprising the other marchers by mounting a charge against the barricade erected some 10 kilometers from the convention center where the conference was going on. The charge–with a battering ram reported to look like a large dragon–and attempted scaling of the fence, heightened the intensity of the action. It was at that point that a Korean farmer named Lee Kyun-Hae climbed to the highest reachable point with a sign reading “WTO Kills Farmers” and stabbed himself in the chest, performing a “self-immolation,” or honor suicide. Such deaths have become common among small-scale farmers in Asia, and even the US, when they find they cannot live through their farming work.

Lee’s death, which did not become general knowledge for some hours, galvanized the opponents of the WTO. Most did not know what the “proper” reaction was, but as it emerged that Lee had been dogging the WTO for several years, it became clear that this former head of a farmers’ union was not acting out of whim, but out of a determination formed over several years. Within the next 24 hours, he became the focal point for explaining the gravity of the issues being discussed, especially on agriculture.

Some of the campesinos came from Chiapas, which is relatively nearby. Many of them were known Zapatista sympathizers, and some of them were willing to identify themselves as such, including at an “encuentro” which was largely attended by people committed to solidarity with the Zapatista movement.

The march that was more widely publicized–Saturday’s–actually ended up being smaller than Wednesday’s, largely because most of the campesinos who had participated in the first action could not afford to stay so long in Cancun. It was, however, better organized–an expression of full solidarity between students and farmers, gringos and Mexicans. It culminated in a police barrier being taken down, but the action was largely symbolic, as the police did not intervene, and had subsequent barriers to ensure that no protesters could get close to the convention center.

The Mexican police were remarkably reserved most of the time in Cancun. They clearly had been instructed to let protesters blow off steam rather than confront them directly. Some incidents of violence did occur, however–though on several occasions it was introduced by activists throwing rocks. That inspired retaliation by the authorities, with at least 20 or so injured, and at least one taken to the local hospital.

While the authorities were able to close down the road connecting downtown Cancun to the hotel zone, and did so intermittently, they did not actually prohibit anyone from moving around the hotel zone. Doing so would have meant preventing hotel employees and tourists from getting to the restaurants and other attractions, essentially shutting down the tourist trade that constitutes Mexico’s most lucrative source of foreign exchange, already hit hard by cancellations because of the WTO meeting. At times of tension the authorities stopped all vehicles except those contracted to the WTO, boarding public buses and questioning occupants of taxis and private cars to check identification and suspicious objects. If anyone was detained in the process, we did not hear about it. By adopting innocuous poses, activists were thus able to get near the convention center to mount small street actions. And among the approximately 1,000 non-governmental organizations and several hundred media outlets accredited to the meetings, were many activists with access to parts of the convention center willing to make some noise. In fact, media stunts took place several times a day in the area closest to the press center.

For these smaller actions inside the hotel zone and near the convention center, the “hands-off” policy seemed to be the norm for the authorities–with the notable exception of a vigil held by Mexican students, who were forced out of the street and onto the sidewalk. A number of other actions, including a street take-over just outside the convention center that lasted nearly two hours, were resolved by negotiations and patience. In that way the “inside” actions were allowed to have their dramatic impact. They too were vital in setting a tone, a “buzz,” for journalists and delegates alike.

The ultimate collapse of the Cancun talks will likely be looked back upon as a momentous event. It represents the first time that a large number of developing countries–including Brazil, India, China, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and reportedly Turkey and Indonesia–held firm and united to a position rejecting the demands of the United States and European Union. More than any single bargaining position, the important thing was the very existence of the so-called Group of 21, which first met in late August in Geneva. The commitments to unity made at a Tuesday press conference will be pledges that these Southern governments can and should be held accountable to.

With the failure of Cancun, countries in Latin America and throughout the world will next have to resist the US push for bilateral and regional trade treaties, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the Central American Free Trade Area (CAFTA). If the refusal to continue being bullied by the wealthy countries holds through the Miami ministerial of the FTAA in November, then Cancun may look more and more like an historic turning point, at which the current hyper-exploitative version of globalization was kicked to the curb, and at which developing countries began to unite forces to take control of their destinies.

Around the US, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, activists are now making plans now to be in Miami for the FTAA ministerial, on November 20 and 21, in Miami. If the wealthy countries are again denied the submission of the developing world, Cancun may well be viewed as a significant turning point in the history of North-South economic relations–the moment when the South stopped acquiescing to the clout of the North.

Soren Ambrose is a policy analyst with the 50 Years Is Enough Network


The National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations (UNORCA), the Mexican campesino group that took the lead in organizing the Cancun peasant contingent, issued a formal protest to the Mexican government after visas were denied to 38 peasant leaders from Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. Among those denied entry for the protests was the Bolivian indigenous campesino leader and national legislator Evo Morales. (La Jornada, Sept. 6)

On Sept. 12, Greenpeace activists blocked the freighter Ikan Altamira from entering Veracruz harbor for 13 hours. The freighter was delivering 40,000 tons of genetically modified corn from New Orleans. It finally reached the Veracruz port with a Mexican Navy escort. Greenpeace says the imports violate the International Protocol on Biosecurity. Mexico says it may prosecute the activists for interfering with international shipping. (La Jornada, Sept. 14)

September, 2003 World War 3 Report