The World Trade Organization’s
meetings in Cancún inspired protests reminiscent of Seattle in 1999,
but with a difference – instead of Teamsters making up the majority of
protesters, in Cancún it was campesinos and indigenous people. They made
visible the long histories of global struggle against exploitative international
In the Beginning was Chiapas
I traveled on one of five buses carrying
200 people from San Cristóbal, in Chiapas, to Cancún. In a single
twenty-eight hour trip we were stopped seven times by military and immigration
checkpoints. Since the Zapatista uprising in 1994, such checkpoints have hampered
the free movement of people throughout Chiapas. Our leaders expected worse difficulties
on the voyage to Cancún, and we agreed that our strategy at these checkpoints
would be honesty: Yes, we were going to Cancún. Yes, travelers included
indigenous people, campesinos and foreigners. But no Mexican or international
law prohibited our freedom of movement.
The Mexican government had denied
visas to international participants, to stymie their participation and, as some
of us had seen at other protests, the government had invested tremendous human
and financial resources in providing “security” in Cancún.
The local and national press had worked for months to whip the public into a
frenzy of fear, bewailing the arrival of “los globalifóbicos”
- Globalophobes. Radio reports warned neighbors to lock their windows and stay
off the streets. Recognizing that the police and military would use any pretext
to escalate the campaign against the protesters, the caravan participants adopted
an explicit code of no alcohol, no drugs, and of respect for the civilian population
The range of participants was diverse.
Each bus carried indigenous people trained as Human Rights Defenders. First
aid was the responsibility of the Mayan doctors and midwives who had recently
won an important struggle against patenting traditional medicines. The caravan
included campesino organizations, people from Zapatista communities and their
civil society bases of support, Christian Base Community groups, women’s
organizations, peace, justice and human rights NGOs, and independent media.
There were a large number of internationals from several northern countries,
many of whom worked in communities or NGOs in Chiapas and Guatemala.
It became clear as soon as we arrived
in Cancún that city, state and federal authorities were taking great
care to protect the WTO meetings. In addition to the usual roadblocks, there
were fences waiting to be assembled every few kilometers along the roads into
Cancún. A big fence blocked off public access to the Hotel Zone where
the WTO meetings -- and many NGO meetings -- were taking place.
Part of ‘protecting the WTO’
involved a detailed management plan for the protesters. The city designated
special areas for us, setting up a big tent in a baseball field for our caravan,
and camping space in a stadium for students from the UNAM public university,
about a mile away from the entrance to the hotel zone. They also set up showers
and provided thousands of little bags of water to keep us hydrated.
Nearby, the Vía Campesina and Indigenous Peoples’ forums took place
at the Cultural Center of Cancún. From the campgrounds, the trip to the
hotel zone involved a long march past Walmart and Burger King. The public, including
our caravan, was invited to participate in the NGO forums in the hotel zone,
which we could access by bus for the first few days. But the fancy hotels where
the WTO ministers met and stayed were inaccessible and out of sight. The city
was full of private security people, and workers were brought in from all over
the country, (including latrine providers from Mexico City, what a relief!).
Within the Ranks
Prior to and during the WTO meetings,
peoples groups and NGOs organized a series of forums: the Via Campesina and
Indigenous Peoples´ forum, a Mesoamerica Forum mostly about the Plan Puebla
Panama, a Fair Trade Forum, and workshops on the WTO and TRIPS. With presentations
by NGOers and intellectuals, many of the forums prioritized the knowledge of
“experts” over that of indigenous people and campesinos. Some, but
too few, left space for a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
Several NGOs that had "token"
representatives of farmers (usually intellectuals, not farmers themselves) speak,
and some of these NGO forums were attended by some WTO delegates, from what
I heard. But there wasn't much communication between people inside the WTO meetings
and those outside. We heard that the poor countries’ delegates, who wouldn’t
give in to pressures from the US and EU and who walked out of the meetings felt
strengthened by the dissent expressed on the streets. But communication must
have been mediated by organizations that were considered "legitimate"
with the government representatives and authorities, and such organizations
tend make lots of compromises. Given this, the WTO ministers probably heard
very little directly from farmers that they didnt want to hear.
Nevertheless, in some cases the WTO
parallel forums sought out “authentic campesino or indigenous perspectives.”
A friend who was invited to take part in the “inside” meetings reported
that sometimes the discussions sought out the moral authority of organizations
that represented mass organizations, so even a few organizations could leverage
anti-free-trade agendas because the WTO delegates knew they were the ones with
contact with civil society.
Even outside the WTO meetings, there
seemed to be some conflicts about "the actors" that were considered
important. Via Campesina and several other networks seem to prioritize "the
farmers" -- los campesinos, but clearly teamed up with indigenous rights
groups to organize the Forum on Indigenous people and Campesinos. This is a
little confusing in Mexico where many indigenous people are campesinos, but
there are also indigenous people who live in urban areas. But it seemed difficult
for groups that weren't farmers and indigenous people to attain space and the
same kind of moral authority - urban groups were definitely much more marginal.
There were some unions that gained a significant level of visibility, like the
union of Mexican Electrical Workers. The UNAM (public university) students were
quite visible, but were often treated as rebels and marginalized in different
The first march against the WTO on
Wednesday September 10 included indigenous people, campesinos, anarchists, students,
international civil society, and NGO staffers. There was a significant delegation
of small farmers from South Korea, and I saw banners from Japan, France, South
Africa, and India. I marched with the Chiapas delegation, joining in the chants
of “No OMC!” (No WTO!), "No somos cinco, no somos cien, pinche
gobierno, cuentenos bien!" (We're not five, we're not 100. Fucking government,
count us well!) "Si Zapata viviera aquí estuviera" (If Zapata
were alive, he'd be here with us!), "Chiapas Chiapas no es cuartel! Fuera
el ejercito de el" (Chiapas isn't an army barracks! Get the army out of
here!) "El neoliberalismo es hijo del Fascismo." (Neoliberalism is
the son of fascism!). A woman with a penny whistle led us in singing the Zapatista
anthem, a song celebrating women revolutionaries, the Chilean revolutionary
song “El Pueblo Unido”, and the Italian “Bella Ciao.”
As the crowd approached the fence
that blocked the entrance to the hotel zone, there was a sudden gasp and a few
people ran away from the front of the crowd, making urgent gestures and calling
an ambulance. I watched as the pale body of a Korean man was carried to an ambulance.
The rumors at the time were that a poor old man had fainted from the heat. We
could all sympathize as the sun beat down on us.
Several hours after the protest,
we learned that this man, Mr. Lee Hyung-Hae, was a Korean farmer who had climbed
the fence and thrust a Swiss Army knife into his chest, declaring “the
WTO kills farmers!”, and had later died in the hospital. Someone explained
that immolation was a tradition for Korean people, that he had sacrificed his
life out of his convictions that the WTO and global capitalist system are killing
people daily. [Read his own words here].
People were shocked, confused, upset. Someone called for the Chiapas caravan
to show their solidarity with the Korean delegation, and we walked several kilometers
to a vigil at the hospital where Mr. Lee had been taken.
When we arrived, the Korean delegation
was sitting and singing solemnly but determinedly outside the hospital. People
bought all the candles they could find at nearby corner stores. The indigenous
women from Chiapas stood close, next to the Koreans. The women from Chiapas,
many of whom had suffered military and paramilitary attacks in their communities,
said prayers in Tzotzil and Tzeltal, and some were brought to tears.
Although the concept of self-immolation
seemed foreign to the majority of the crowd, there was deep respect for Mr.
Lee, because people knew that he, like many in their own communities, had died
in defense of peoples’ rights to self-determination.
The vigil continued with the Zapatista
anthem, and a group of anarchists gave the Korean delegation a flag that read
"love, struggle and solidarity." The director of Via Campesina called
for a memorial service to commemorate Mr. Lee and the struggles of farmers worldwide.
That night at the memorial service,
many people stayed up late, praying and singing. The following day, a memorial
was erected where Mr. Lee died, at the entrance to the hotel zone. People brought
candles, flowers and banners, and the Chiapas delegation discussed whether to
move our encampment to that space to be in solidarity with the Korean delegation,
who had left their hotels to camp there. We struggled to make sense of Mr. Lee’s
death during the remaining days of the protest.
Second March – Women
take the front lines
Another large protest took place
on Saturday, September 13. We marched from our camp, again in hot sun, arriving
at the newly reinforced fence blocking the hotel zone. The caravan from Chiapas
had painted signs reading "Chiapas en Contra de la Pinche OMC" (Chiapas
against the Fucking WTO!), and "Huevos a la OMC" --(Eggs to the WTO).
The slogan proved to be the focus of some debate - some indigenous people, as
well as some foreigners, wanted to match words with action by throwing eggs
over the fence at the cops, while others argued that this would provoke attack,
that the enemy was not the police but the corporations, and that egg-throwing
would break our commitment to nonviolence.
In the end, the plan for the protest
(which I didn't discover until we were well into it!), was for women to take
the front lines. A bunch of women -- Black Bloc-ers, Mexico City public university
students and foreigners – were to cut open the fence with wire cutters,
as a symbolic repudiation for the exclusion of public participation in the WTO
decision-making. The indigenous women from Chiapas were to form a protective
barrier between the fence cutters and the rest of the crowd.
As we walked to our spot by the fence,
the Chiapan women were cheered on with chants of "EZLN"! There were
a couple of scary moments when it wasn't clear what was going to happen, and
some of us were quite uncomfortable about being so close to the armored cops
who were watching from behind the fence.
As one part of the fence was being
cut, the Korean delegation was pulling down another segment with huge, long
ropes. And so it was that the people pulled the barriers surrounding the WTO
to the ground. Guided by Korean farmers, with ropes made of local twine attached
to the barriers, everyone pulled who could get close to the tethers, and the
barricades came away in our hands. Once the fence was down, there was no attempt
to rush through it. Instead, the whole crowd calmly sat down. There were declarations
from the Koreans about Mr. Lee, and everyone was given flowers, which some gave
to the police. I stood quite far back with the Chiapan women, a little concerned
because there were signs that the police might close in on the protesters. In
the end, the police were more passive than we expected, perhaps because of government
concerns over maintaining a positive international image. Sheltered by the eyes
of the world’s media, we transformed Cancún, or the part of it
that we could access, at least for a while. Some pulled down street signs. By
the end of the week, the center of the city was creatively decorated with anti-WTO
graffiti. More enduring than the graffiti, we hope, will be the effect of the
street protest on public consciousness and, of course, on the WTO.