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News: Stopping the WTO Again

Trade talks fail as opponents take the streets in Cancun

By Joshua C. Robinson · September 17th, 2003 · News
  It wouldn't be a proper World Trade Organization meeting without streetdemonstrations (below) and oppressive police crackdowns (above).Cancun complied, and then some.
Joshua C. Robinson

It wouldn't be a proper World Trade Organization meeting without streetdemonstrations (below) and oppressive police crackdowns (above).Cancun complied, and then some.

CANCUN, MEXICO -- Women in bikinis are common at this beach resort, but visitors last week might have been surprised to see some of them marching through the streets wearing balaclavas as well.

Other strange sights -- steel barricades and more than 20,000 police and security officers -- greeted tourists Sept. 10-14 during the World Trade Organization's Fifth Ministerial Conference.

Trade delegates from 146 countries, representatives of nearly 1,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and more than 10,000 protesters gathered here for multilateral trade negotiations and bitter disagreements about how to regulate global trade.

The WTO, business leaders and representatives of industrialized nations say removing all barriers to trade will spark economic growth around the world, bringing prosperity to the Third World while pulling First World economies out of the doldrums. Opponents -- including many developing nations, labor and environmentalist groups and anti-capitalist street demonstrators -- say free trade encourages poverty and ecological disaster. They expressed their views in myriad ways, from angry rhetoric to whimsical direct action.

Coming into the conference, chances for success for supporters of free trade looked good. One contentious issue -- WTO rules against poor countries' importation of cheap drugs made by companies other than the patent holders -- was solved with an agreement allowing the importation of treatments for infectious diseases. As pressure from NGOs and protesters mounted, however, the trade talks quickly stalled.

Underscoring the division was Vandana Shiva, Indian physicist and founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. Recently named the "Fifth Most Powerful Person in Asia" (and the single most powerful woman) by Asiaweek, Shiva had strong words for the WTO.

"(The WTO) is a criminal organization because it is killing people in my country," she said. "I daily watch innocent lives go."

Shiva said 20,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves due to despair over high debt resulting from WTO policies that force countries to open their doors to imports but allow developed nations such as the United States to heavily subsidize their farmers. This makes Indian crops uncompetitive in First World markets and encourages overproduction by subsidized farmers, leading to dumping their crops in Third World markets at prices below the cost of production.

As the trade meetings got underway in the Hotel Zone, several thousand farmers, anarchists and environmentalists marched to voice their opposition to the WTO's policies. The Farmers March was intended to focus attention on trade rules for agriculture.

A pitched battle ensued as demonstrators tried to clear a police barricade so the march could pass to the Convention Center. Then something happened that came to define the entire week, especially from the point of view of WTO opponents.

While others struggled to remove the steel fence, 56-year-old Lee Kyung -- a rice farmer and president of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation -- climbed the fence and stabbed himself. He fell to the ground and was rushed to hospital, where he died. For the remainder of the conference, protesters constantly referenced his sacrifice.

Back in the Convention Center, events had taken a turn that seemed to advance the protesters' demands. On the eve of the summit a group led by China, India, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa issued a statement insisting there would be no trade agreements unless rich nations eliminate their subsidies and tariffs and protect farmers in the developing world.

This coalition -- which later became known as the G21, or group of 21 less-developed countries, and then as the G22 when Turkey joined the bloc -- wielded enormous power within the WTO. Because any WTO agreement requires agreement of all member nations, the G22, which represents half the world's people and two-thirds of its farmers, could ensure that no agreement emerged at all.

The largest media coup of the Fifth Ministerial Conference came that afternoon when a collection of groups staged a guerrilla press conference about Kyung's suicide. More than 100 people crowded into the main briefing room at the Convention Center.

Changgeun Lee, international director of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, described Kyung as a member of the Korean Peace Delegation.

"Through his suicide, he would like to express his strong opposition to the WTO," Lee said, who added that the suicide was symbolic. "Many Korean farmers must commit suicide due to the heavy burden of debt."

Later that day a delegate from Greenpeace waged a protest during a press conference by Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Peter Allgeier. Afterward, all NGO delegates were barred from attending press briefings for the remainder of the WTO conference.

Discussions on Sept. 12 began with rich and poor countries still deadlocked on agricultural and other issues. The day ended with little progress inside the Convention Center.

The protesters, however, made great progress, coming within yards of the WTO venue itself. Early in the day, a trio of activists infiltrated the "red zone" and scaled a massive crane atop a new condominium project across the street from the trade meetings. Once there, they disrobed and hung an anti-WTO banner from the crane.

That evening, in a brazen direct action directly adjacent to the Convention Center, more than 200 anti-WTO activists shut down most traffic through the hotel zone for more than three hours.

With talks inside the WTO meeting still deadlocked Sept. 13, as many as 10,000 activists took part in a march to the barricade. Armed with bolt cutters, crowbars and hammers, several demonstrators began climbing on the steel fences, cutting and smashing them apart.

Once sufficient damage had been done, the Korean contingent moved in with huge bundles of rope. The holes in the fence allowed them to attach the ropes to it, and after several tries over the better part of an hour, about 30 feet of the imposing barricade had been reduced to twisted, broken metal and dragged away by dozens of people working in concert.

Strangely, the protesters had no intention of going through the breach. The Koreans, who had been holding a vigil at the site of the original fence since the night of Sept. 10, staged a somber memorial for their fallen comrade before leading the crowd back to town.

With this, the action in the streets more or less ended, much as it had inside the suites in the Hotel Zone. On the last day of meetings, no agreement had been reached. ©



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