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Alicia Swords © 2003


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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 economic policies.

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 of Cancún.

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 ways.

First March

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.




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