Postcard From Cancún

Postcard From Cancún

The insurgent delegations were in many respects the product of years of anti-WTO organizing.


That polyglot and ideologically heterodox raft of forces called “the global justice movement” has pulled off another victory, this time at its protest against the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in the fortified and artificial city of Cancún, Mexico.

The demonstrations could have easily been a disaster, thanks to political infighting among the initial Mexican organizers, massive police intimidation and a growing focus on US militarism among European and American activists. All of this translated into very few “sandals on the ground”–the ranks of the so-called “globo-phobicos” never reached more than 6,000 activists.

But what the protests lacked in quantity they more than made up for in quality. The protesters managed to disrupt and ridicule the official proceedings in creative and courageous ways that included infiltrating the meetings and dumping genetically modified (GM) corn on ministers’ tables; spelling “NO WTO” with naked bodies on the beach below the meetings; blocking traffic at the meeting zone with a series of sit-ins; and several militant marches.

The key issues on the street were the same as in the ministerial meetings: unfair Northern agricultural subsidies and monopolization of intellectual property. Demonstrators focused surprisingly little on the US occupation of Iraq, global warming or the many other more general causes that were represented in Genoa and Seattle. This was partly because of who made it to Cancún–most protesters were students and farmers from Mexico, or rural and trade-union activists from other parts of the global South.

The street drama began on September 10, with a mass march through downtown Cancún. But when the procession of 5,000-6,000 activists was blocked by a massive metal fence and lines of police, something totally unexpected happened. Lee Kyung-Hae, a former South Korean MP and ruined farmer, scaled the barricade and committed suicide by plunging a knife into his heart. His message, delivered in speeches, articles and peaceful protests over the preceding four years, was simple: The WTO is killing farmers. Less than a year ago, Lee had almost died while on hunger strike in front of the WTO headquarters in Geneva.

Once Lee’s body was carried away the crowd attacked. Korean farmers, Mexican campesinos and anarchists, and a smattering of American and European radicals tore down part of the fortified fence where Lee had died. Then, led by a contingent of Korean farmers, the protesters slammed into the waiting lines of police with rocks and metal bars. The Federales fought back with clubs. About a dozen people were injured on both sides; numerous cops had their batons and shields taken, but there were no confirmed arrests. “I used to protest a lot twenty years ago, and that was a pretty tough crowd,” said an American activist and lobbyist with the Consumers Union. Not all agreed.

“If this was Korea we would have destroyed the whole fence,” insisted Dr. Kang Choong-Ho, international secretary of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.

Two days later, at the final march, the Koreans brought heavy rope, tackle and bolt cutters and did just that, ripping to pieces a huge section of double-fortified, ten-foot-high and fourteen-foot-deep reinforced metal fencing. Amazingly, the crowd followed up its medieval-style demolition of the fence with an impressive show of discipline and unity by sitting where the fence had once been and quietly honoring the dead Mr. Lee. The police looked on in stunned silence.

Though largely ignored in the US press, these direct actions received extensive coverage in Mexico, and many here believe they had something to do with motivating the so-called Group of 21, a coalition of developing countries that refused to give an inch on intellectual property and investment issues until the United States, Japan and the European Union agreed to cut their massive subsidies to agribusiness.

These insurgent delegations were in many respects the product of previous years of anti-WTO activism and almost a decade of growing peasant militancy throughout the global South. It is no surprise that Brazil, now governed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party, a movement allied with the Landless Workers Movement, was pivotal in the G-21 efforts. India also joined the G-21, in part because the pressure exerted by its massive farmers’ movement, which uses suicide and the mass destruction of GM crops as tactics, was simply greater than the pressure coming from Washington.

The G-21’s demand of a real quid pro quo created ministerial paralysis, and on Sunday the 14th, the confabulations ended in a spectacular and crashing collapse. No agreements were reached.

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