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Soren Ambrose © 2003


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The World Trade Organization (WTO) is a paradoxical institution. It was founded on the ostensible notion of free trade improving living standards around the world, but its agreements serve mainly corporate interests in North America, Europe, and the developed Asia-Pacific region (Japan, Australia, New Zealand). Its structure holds out the hope of democracy and equal participation, but in practice it is the scene of tremendously coercive political and economic manipulation. The most frustrating irony is that for all the energy and resources spent on strategizing, analyzing, and negotiating at the WTO, for the majority of its member countries (and most of the non-governmental organizations and street protesters who plague it), the outcome at the Cancún summit (10-14 September) -- no agreement whatsoever -- was the greatest triumph for which they could have hoped. No wonder politicians from India to Africa occasionally wonder just why their governments stay in the organization.

With the stalemate in September, Cancún looks destined to join Waterloo, Stalingrad, and Seattle as one of those place names that graduates to shorthand for a historic event. This event, the second of the five summits to end in failure, may very well be celebrated as the first time that developing countries -- the Global South -- united to refuse the economic aggression of the wealthy Northern countries, and in particular the United States, the European Union, and Japan.

A Whiff of Democracy

No one would confuse the WTO with a democratic institution. Its flaws, and in particular the unfair advantage that wealthy countries have in the negotiations, have been explored at length over its eight-year life. But some hope always flickered, particularly because the organization makes decisions through consensus of its 146-government membership. Practically speaking, apart from the United States government, which is becoming alarmingly adept at it, there is probably no single country that would feel able to alone face down the rest of the world to scuttle an agreement. But with sufficient mutual support, even a group of poor countries could stop the WTO.

This hint of democracy, of requiring the active consent of those who will be affected by an agreement, would be nearly unthinkable at, say, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose imposition of outlandishly destructive economic policies on indebted countries helped set the stage for the WTO. (Indeed, a week after Cancún, the two older organizations refused to consider, at U.S. insistence, a proposal slightly to increase African representation on their boards.) But to say that the WTO is the most democratic of the multilateral institutions is more a reflection of the lack of democracy in international structures than a tribute to the WTO.

The Peninsular Mentality: From Seattle to Doha to Cancún

Cancún was not a re-play of Seattle. There, well-organized protesters both among the civil society groups inside the convention center and on the streets outside combined with government delegates embittered by the arrogance of the U.S. hosts to shut down the effort to begin a new round of negotiations. As it turns out, the leadership of the WTO did not learn much in Seattle, but they have made sure to hold their bi-annual summits in easily-controlled locations far from the turf of tenacious protesters (such as the forest activists of the Northwest U.S. who were more than happy to trek to Seattle and teach others their tactics). The November 2001 summit was held in Doha, Qatar, one of the principalities on the Arabian Peninsula where freedom of expression is sharply restricted, and the 2003 conference took place on a narrow, single-road peninsula consisting entirely of resort hotels just outside the city of Cancún, which is itself on the remote Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

The government delegates were, as a result, rarely disturbed by demonstrations of public opinion. The great bulk of those who came to Cancún to protest the WTO were kept in the city and off the exclusive peninsula, where access was controlled by a series of temporary metal barriers. But unless you were traveling in a large group or with banners and placards, you stood a good chance of getting to the resort area on the abundant public buses, since the authorities, mindful of interfering too much with business-as-usual in what the Mexican government claims is the most popular tourist destination in the world, did not want to shut out the hotel workers or the U.S. tourists that keep it raking in dollars.

The protesters who got to the inner gates encircling the convention center did banner-drops, mounted street parties, and formed picket lines. They did not shut down the meetings, but they were instrumental in reminding the delegates that there was a world outside, one where the WTO is not very popular. In tandem with the mass protests downtown and guerrilla media stunts inside the convention center, they provided the essential context for the different kind of resistance that broke the Cancún summit: the willingness of developing country governments to step up and say, simply, no.

OUTSIDE: Demonstrations and a Death

Opponents of the WTO came to Cancún from at least forty countries. The numbers were smaller than some predicted -- particularly those influenced by the inflated-expectations game now a familiar part of local authorities fear and hype tactics at each globalization gathering. Many articles had predicted fifty thousand protesters, with one or two doubling that number. But organizers on the ground always knew that such numbers were unlikely to materialize in Cancún, which is one of the most remote spots in Mexico. There are many flights, but more affordable means of transportation are scarce.

Indeed Cancún today is largely a product of contemporary globalization. Starting with a program funded by the World Bank thirty years ago, massive and lavish resort hotels, now numbering over a hundred, line the peninsula on the beautiful Caribbean coast. The hotel workers are mostly internal migrants who live in the city, many with intermittent or no power or water provision -- a sharp contrast to the unlimited supply on tap for the tourists. The workers receive daily wages roughly equivalent to the price charged for two twenty-ounce bottles of water in the Hyatt, Marriott, or Ritz Carlton resorts.

There were approximately ten to fifteen thousand people at the height of the protests, which came at the time of the conferences opening ceremony on Wednesday, 10 September. The march that day was organized by Via Campesina, the international network of small-scale agricultural producers, and was spirited and sober, conscious of the gravity of the plight faced by most of the farmers there, who are engaged in a losing battle with a rigged global trading system that keeps commodity prices artificially low, undermining non-corporate agriculture everywhere. Most of the marchers were from Mexico, naturally, but there were farmers from West Africa, Japan, the United States, India, South Korea, and many Latin American and Caribbean countries. The Korean delegation was particularly impressive -- nearly two hundred people from the other side of the world, most of them farmers, along with a contingent from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

The Koreans ended up surprising the other marchers by mounting a charge against the main barricade, erected some ten kilometers from the convention center. The charge, with a battering ram reported to look like a dragon, certainly heightened the intensity of the action. But it was the action of a Korean farmer named Lee Kyun-Hae a few minutes later that claimed the headlines and set the tone for the rest of the protest actions in Cancún. Lee climbed the fence with a sign reading "WTO Kills Farmers" and stabbed himself in the chest, performing a self-immolation. Such suicides have become common among small-scale farmers in Asia when they find they cannot maintain their livelihood, and are not unheard of among U.S. family farmers. By committing his suicide at the WTO summit, Lee put the corporate-biased agricultural policies of the WTO in the spotlight with undeniable pathos, a searing attack on the WTO’s human impact that no one could ignore.

Lee’s death ensured the demonstrations carried a gravity befitting their message, a tone which may otherwise have been lost in media reports focused on comparing the turnout to the numbers predicted by the authorities. Inside the convention center, activists made sure that Lee's sacrifice was heard by mounting an impromptu memorial service at the media center and taking over an auditorium to hold an unscheduled press conference.

Saturdays march ended up being smaller than Wednesdays, largely because most of the campesinos who had participated in the first action could not afford to stay so long in Cancún. But it was a well-organized expression of solidarity between students and farmers, North Americans, Koreans, and Mexicans. Its climax came when a group of women took wire-cutters to the barricade, followed by a group led by the Koreans who tied ropes to the crippled fence and pulled it down. The police, who had additional barricades a few hundred yards up the road, tolerated the action as a symbolic assault on the WTO. After the barricade fell, the crowd adrenaline was high, but the energy was turned inward, as the protesters turned away from the barricade, sat down, and observed a powerful tribute to Lee and the fight for justice for which he gave his life.

INSIDE: Taking the Message to the Delegates . . . and the Media

In addition to the protests going on in downtown Cancún and the smaller actions on the streets just outside the convention center, many activists penetrated meeting site itself -- all entirely legally. The WTO accredited some 980 non-governmental organizations to enter the convention center, though they were not allowed very close to the rooms where the actual negotiations took place. There were also well over a thousand reporters using the media center, which contained generous banks of computers, printers, fax machines, and DSL lines. Indeed, the media center constituted most of the area into which the NGOs were allowed. That overlap fostered dozens of interesting actions.

Only two hundred NGOs were given passes to the opening ceremony, but about thirty of them made good use of the opportunity, standing with mouths covered by black tape as WTO Director General Supachai Pantichpakdi spoke, holding signs with messages like “WTO Obsolete” and “WTO Undemocratic”. Security guards isolated but did not accost them, so they chose the moment of their departure, chanting “Shame! Shame!” as they filed out of the hall. That action, more than any of the officials' comments, was what made the news.

A press conference on agriculture by the Deputy U.S. Trade Representative was interrupted twice the next day by activists denouncing the anti-farmer, pro-corporate policies of the U.S. government and the WTO. A few hours later, a notice was affixed to the video bulletin board scroll listing upcoming press conferences: Because of an incident on 11 September, NGOs will no longer be allowed to attend press briefings. This over-reaction failed to recognize that many of the activists, including at least two of those who interrupted the press conference, had media credentials (which carry more privileges). In any case, the rule was only applied at U.S. government briefings.

Some reporters accused the activists of being opportunists who were limiting the rights of government officials and journalists to free speech. But perhaps opportunism shouldn’t carry such a negative connotation -- these press conferences were very rare opportunities for citizens, even U.S. citizens, to get the attention of inaccessible policy makers like the U.S. Trade Representative. For that matter, it made the issues hard to ignore for the mainstream media, which has become gullible and incurious in this age of increasing corporate control and reluctance to challenge received wisdom.

Perhaps the most elaborate piece of street theatre inside the convention center occurred when a man wearing a mask of Robert Zoellick (US Trade Representative) and another man wearing a mask of Pascal Lamy (his EU counterpart) began to make a ruckus. “Can’t you see who I am?” bellowed the pseudo-Zoellick, “I’m Robert Zoellick, U.S. Trade Representative! Get out of my way!” Stopping in front of the media's computer banks, he exclaimed, “How are we going to get these fucking 21 countries [a reference to the group including Brazil, China, India, and South Africa that declared its total opposition to US/EU agriculture subsidies] to stop blocking our progress here at the WTO?! Don’t they know that the way to make everyone richer is to buy our subsidized, genetically-modified foods?!” Pseudo-Lamy agreed, if not quite as boisterously. They were then confronted by a small crowd chanting “Stop betraying farmers needs with US/EU corporate greed!” Their chants eclipsed the two trade barons shouts and eventually forced them to melt to the ground.

FURTHER INSIDE: Power Politics at the WTO

The skits mounted in the media center were pretty close to what was going on, for real, elsewhere in the convention center. The Group of 21 countries, or G-21, held a press conference on the evening of Tuesday 9 September, with the foreign minister of Brazil, the deputy trade minister of China, and trade ministers from India, South Africa, Argentina, and Costa Rica on the platform to announce the group’s existence and its determination to stick together throughout the conference. The meeting that led to the formation of the group occurred just a few weeks before at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters, in response to the WTO Secretariat's release of an official draft text for the Cancún summit. That document was based almost wholly on a joint submission by the United States and the European Union, and was widely attacked for ignoring the concerns developing countries had been expressing since the Doha ministerial where the terms of the negotiating round were laid down. At the press conference, the G-21 circulated its proposed alternative declaration.

The attitude on display was more important than the content of the group's agenda, which was a fairly narrow one of insisting on cuts in Northern countries' agricultural subsidies and greater access to Northern markets. The speakers at the press conference dwelt more on their determination not to succumb to inducements or threats from the Northern governments designed to erode their unity; the groups de facto coordinator, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, said, “We will keep our unity, which will be tested repeatedly, starting from this very moment.” They took comfort, he said, from knowing they have the support of our producing classes and of world opinion in general. They also emphasized the significance of the constituency they represented -- 63% of all farmers and 51% of the world’s population.

The Northern negotiators were indignant: how could these countries issue an ultimatum, essentially saying they would let the whole summit collapse unless the European Union, Japan, and the United States relaxed their trade barriers? How could they be so intransigent -- didn’t they come to negotiate? And how could they be so demanding, without indicating what they were prepared to offer in exchange?

It’s a wonder that no one on the Northern countries delegations collapsed from vertigo brought on by the dizzying levels of hypocrisy and bad faith required to make such arguments. The U.S. and its allies were being tested by their own rules -- for over two decades they have, through their control of the World Bank and the IMF and through trade negotiations, been demanding, successfully, that other countries liberalize their economies and open their markets to products from the North. And they always maintained that they did so not out of some selfish quest for private profit that would be repatriated to their countries, but because trade and investment liberalization are the characteristics of a modern economy, and would be the most effective ways to address the plight of the millions of impoverished people living in the developing world.

The seriousness of the challenge represented by the G-21 was made clear by the intensity of the campaign launched by delegates from the U.S. and the E.U. to discredit or split the group, and to bribe other countries to pledge not to join. Central American countries were offered increased trade quotas with the U.S. to either leave the G-21 or to pledge not to join. Colombia was reported to be wobbling from the start -- not surprising, perhaps, given its complicated relationship with the U.S. But by the end of the conference the only switch that was acknowledged was the departure of El Salvador, its right-wing government sufficiently bribed or threatened as it faces its most serious challenge yet from the left in coming elections, and the addition of Nigeria and Indonesia. Population isnt everything, of course, but in adding up the numbers after that realignment, the G-20+ (as it came to be called with fluctuation in the ranks) certainly ended up representing over 60% of the worlds population (the list on September 15 was: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, and Venezuela).

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