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Behind Globalization's Glitz | The Nation

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Behind Globalization's Glitz

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Cancún, Mexico

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Hardly a day has gone by in the past month without the local press running a front-page panic story--sometimes two or three--warning of an impending invasion of what are routinely called globalifobicos, or globaphobes. A favorite international convention site, Cancún will host the Fifth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference on September 10-14, and something like 20,000 people are expected to stage a series of protests and marches--demonstrations the local tabloids giddily predict will turn into a south-of-the-border version of the 1999 Battle of Seattle [see Tania Molina Ramírez, page 18].

The protest agenda is long and complex, but the demonstrators can all agree on one point: Cancún itself is one of the world's most dramatic showcases of the gross inequities of the global economic system. The WTO--the controversial agency that sets the rules of international trade--certainly didn't intend it to be this way. But when the demonstrators are asked by reporters why they're rallying and marching, they'll be able simply to point to the city around them. "Cancún is a prime example of a type of foreign investment and a type of development without any rules to protect the work force, the environment, or to guarantee public services," says Fernanda Castejon of the Mexico office of the antihunger group Oxfam. "Cancún is everything that should not be done when it comes to economic models. If the goals of an expanded WTO are ever achieved, the world will be full of Cancúns."

It's not only the widening gulf between rich and poor that's on vivid display in Cancún. In an ironic twist, some of the wealthier "haves"--the same entrepreneurs who have long profited from Cancún's rich natural resources and cheap and abundant labor--now also find themselves threatened by the hurricane forces of globalization.

This beach resort of 100 luxury hotels crowded onto a narrow thirteen-mile sandbar sits strategically perched on the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, making it the Caribbean tourist destination most accessible to the greatest number of US cities. That's no doubt the primary reason Mexican government planners conducting computerized surveys chose this site for tourist development thirty-five years ago--a time when Cancún was uninhabited swamp, everglade and jungle.

Now drawing almost 3 million visitors a year to its white sands, 85-degree turquoise seas and no-rules cantinas, this city that was built from scratch is the most popular vacation spot in Mexico. While still a distinct minority among the visitors, the number of domestic--Mexican--tourists continues to grow. One reason is rapidly falling hotel prices. But other cultural observers say, wryly, that the reason for Cancún's increasing popularity among Mexicans is that coming here is sometimes the easiest, no-hassle way for Mexicans to "leave Mexico" for a weekend or so.

Indeed, finding a small, family-run Mexican taqueria or panaderia--a taco stand or a traditional bakery--is much easier in downtown Los Angeles or Chicago than it is in Cancún. This city, or at least its heavily trafficked hotel zone--"a mirage," as Castejon calls it--is neither Mexico nor even an extension of the United States. It is a place that floats suspended in its own unique physical, psychological and commercial space--a sort of globologoland. Even the hordes of American college sophomores who invade by the thousands during spring break and carouse from one all-you-can-drink bar to another are sometimes surprised to find that Cancún is more like home than home itself. Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Subway, KFC, TGI Friday's, Outback and many other US franchise outlets occupy most of the hotel zone's commercial space. Cancún's street life, especially at night, seems to center on the Forum by the Sea mall, anchored by the Hard Rock and Rainforest Cafes. A double scoop of ice cream in a waffle cone at the mall's Häagen-Dazs store costs $7.50--more than in Miami or Manhattan.

Tourists might be surprised to hear that's twice the daily minimum wage--which is what is paid to many workers who toil in the glittering hotels--in this Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Not that there's much contact between the tourists and the 700,000 Mexicans who live in and around Cancún. A de facto economic and social apartheid keeps the two worlds of Cancún--the served and the server--quite distant except when conducting necessary business. "I've worked here twenty-two years, and never once have I been able to bring my kids to this beach," complains Sonia, a middle-aged single mother of two who serves drinks and snacks to sunbathers at a four-star oceanfront hotel. She earns 50 pesos a day (about $4.50), sometimes tripled by tips. "Employees and their families are simply not allowed to use the facilities," she says. "We're prohibited."

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