Cancun Reality Show


The fifth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) upcoming in this Caribbean tourist paradise September 10th-14th will be a make or break session for that beleaguered champion of the corporate globalization of the world’s economies. With 146 member nations on hand, most of them grouped as ‘poor’ or ‘developing’ and united in their resistance to the edicts of the big power blocs like the Quad (U.S., Canada, UE, and Japan), and tens of thousands of demonstrators banging on the gates of the swank Cancun hotel zone, the prospects for a tropical Seattle have organizers and the host country fretting.

Three levels of Mexican police led by the crack Federal Preventative Police (PFP) plus elements of the military and reportedly, in open violation of national sovereignty, U.S. anti-terrorism units, will lock down sea, air, and land routes around the meeting site and try to keep the protesters at bay.

Precedent for confrontation was set during a February 2001 World Economic Council Cancun roadshow when police brutally beat Mexican “globalphobes” into the sand during a speech by President Vicente Fox. Fox will open the WTO huddle along with U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Like many recent sites of high-profile global conclaves, the WTO meeting will take place on an isolated strip of beachfront hotels that have been sealed off for weeks in anticipation of the conference. Separated from the city of Cancun by a causeway, the hotel zone is accessed by a single avenue fronted on one side by the luxury hotels and on the other by a lagoon with an active crocodile population.

Weather conditions for this high-end trade summit are not comforting either. The WTO will meet as the local hurricane season is reaching its peak and Cancun has been repeatedly ravaged by such disturbances–most rudely on September 14th 1988 when “Gilbert” wrecked the hotel zone.

Cancun, which appropriately enough translates to “nest of snakes” in Yucatan Maya, is a congruent stage for this global clambake. The resort city, which first took off in the 1970s and is now the fastest-growing urban entity in the country, did not even exist before international entrepreneurs dredged sparkling white sand from the Caribbean and converted rough limestone outcroppings into some of the most photogenic beaches in the world. Then the transnationals moved in and contracted thousands of Mayan Indian laborers to build the hotels, some of them replicas of Mayan temples.

For the past 30 years, global travel moguls have been flying in pre-paid package tour customers to fill the hotels to near capacity. Spring break, when tens of thousands of U.S. college students fly in to guzzle Margueritas and barf on public thoroughfares is a particularly high season.

Meanwhile, the hotel maids and construction workers have settled in “regions” carved from the jungle out by the international airport which feature unpaved streets, oozing sewage, no electricity, and bad water to compensate them for the “privilege” of serving the tourists. Most are Mayans from rural Quintana Roo state and the surrounding Yucatan peninsula who have descended upon this government-designated “pole of development” to support their families back in the villages–the migration has seriously disrupted the social fabric in Yucatan Mayan communities.

In other words, Cancun is an apt metaphor for the way Globalization impacts the third world..

The WTO’s Cancun junta is conceived of as the crown jewel of the so-called Doha or “development” round of trade negotiations supposedly designed to bridge the gap between the rich north and the impoverished south. Two years ago, the WTO convened in far-off Doha Qatar, now the site of the U.S. Central Command’s Iraqi operation, after its 1999 fracaso in Seattle when the anti-globalization movement first erupted and the poorer nations revolted against the hegemony of the Quad. Globalization had a full head of steam until it was derailed in Seattle and it has been a bumpy haul to get enthusiasm back on track.

Doha was seen as a way to recoup and reconcile differences between poor and developing nations and the first world. The negotiations have focused on four themes–agriculture, intellectual property “rights”, tariffs on manufactured goods (textiles), and preferential treatment for the have-not countries. No agreements were reached by the March 31st deadline for the Cancun agenda, and Pascal Lamay, the European Union commerce minister, is gloomy about prospects for breaking the logjam in Cancun. “Given the weaknesses in the world economy, failure to reach agreement will have significant negative impacts for the future” Lamay told reporters last week in Brussels.

Negotiations are snarled around two key issues: U.S.-U.E. agricultural subsidies, and pharmaceutical industry patents on vital drugs for AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria, and 20 other life-threatening diseases.

Since Doha, U.S. president George W. Bush, who raises millions in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical giants, has been adamant about not relinquishing patent rights to allow poor nations cheap access to such medications. The Bush position, which clearly places profits above the lives of millions of poor people, has painted the WTO into a bad image corner and this August, the White House had a sudden change of heart.

In an effort to grease the skids for Cancun and infuse the World Trade Organization with a more ‘humanitarian’ glow, the U.S. is now offering a complicated protocol that will permit drug makers in developing nations like India and Brazil to manufacture and sell generic versions of expensive life-saving drugs to the world’s poorest 27 nations.

On the other hand, less poor countries like Mexico are being pressured into pledging that they will not “exploit” the patent exception–except in cases of a “national epidemic emergency” as defined by the WTO and its powerful Committee of Experts (whose members are largely drawn from transnational corporations.)

“It will be interesting to see how the Mexican government explains to dying third world AIDS patients why they are still paying first world prices to stay alive” writes prominent Mexican anti-globalization activist Sylvia Ribiero. Oxfam, a significant player in the NGO community, describes the U.S. offer, which is expected to be ratified at Cancun, as “20 pages of clauses no one can understand.”

But if agreement is imminent on drug patents, agriculture will not be so easy to unknot. The sticking point is the enormous subsidies Quad nations shell out to their farmers. The disparities north and south of the Mexican border are illustrative: U.S. farmers receive per capita $21,000 hand-outs a year from their department of agriculture; Mexicans $700 if they fall under the government’s purview. $10 billion in subsidies to U.S .corn farmers enables them to dump their grain in Mexico at 20% below cost, and, affirms a recent Oxfam study “Dumping Across Borders”, is driving Mexican campesinos off their land and into the immigration stream.

Of 6,000.000 tons of U.S.-Canadian corn that Mexico imports each year under that beacon of globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), 4,000,000 are thought to be transgenic, presenting a palpable threat to the germ plasma of the oldest corn culture on earth.

But U.S. subsidies pale when compared to the U.E. which expends $2.50 USD daily to keep a single cow grazing in a pasture. The Japanese pay-outs are even more grotesque–$7.50 per cow. Most of the world’s population barely survives on $1 to $2 a day.

A recent Iowa State University study reveals that radical readjustment of first world agricultural subsidies and tariffs would transfer $60 billion each year to poor exporters–more than the total amount invested by donor countries in third world development. Nonetheless, high subsidies are a political hot potato in the Quad nations–two years ago, in defiance of international trends, George W. Bush jumped aid by 80% to big U.S. farmers, a move which provoked Mexico to file a dumping claim with the WTO.

On the heels of the drug “agreement: (if that’s what it was), Washington and the European Union struck a deal on limiting subsidies on all agricultural products–but not eliminating them as had been demanded by poor and developing countries. The accord, which makes no mention of dumping or preferential treatment for fragile one-crop economies has not flown well in the south and pessimism about reaching consensus in Cancun reigns. Professor John Odell, a University of Southern California professor who writes extensively on arcane WTO matters, even calculates that disaffected poor and developing nations could walk out on the session if their concerns are not addressed, crippling the Doha round whose centerpiece is agriculture, and even dooming the WTO.

Similarly, U.S. trade rep Robert Zoellick, known in the trade as ‘the father of NAFTA’, who is heading a 700-member delegation to the talks, has indicated that Washington is prepared to go it alone if consensus fails in Cancun.

While Mexico’s anti-globalization movement is not large (a recent Pew Institute survey indicates 51% acceptance for global commerce here), it has a strong and combative campesino movement that has been much in motion recently on the issue of NAFTA-related dumping, and 10,000 farmers are expected to take to the Cancun streets during the WTO reality show. Principal organizers include the National Union of Autonomous Regional Organizations (UNORCA),which groups together 4000 independent farmers’ groups, and is organizing Mayan campesinos from Quintana Roo and the Yucatan to storm the WTO meet.

Also on hand will be Via Campesina, an international coalition of farmers from 70 distinct nations that represents a constituency of 100,000,000 farmers and their families. Among Via Campesina contingents that will be in evidence in Cancun are Brazil’s Sem Terras or landless farmers, and campesino organizations from several close-by Central American countries. The farmers are expected to be joined by urban workers–the National Workers Union (UNT) will caravan to Cancun from Mexico City.

Major concentrations are set for September 10th during the opening round and the 13th, a day of international action against the WTO and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Campesino organizers have repeatedly vowed their determination to reach the heavily-protected hotel zone.

With 50 international forums ranging in focus from alternative media to fishing to Iraq, a visit by the Greenpeace “Rainbow Warrior”, many marches and “casarolas” on the daily docket, a fair trade fair, plus abundant cultural happenings, the Cancun anti-global gathering will be a full spectrum rainbow. World Beat anti-global superstar Manu Chao is rumored to be on his way.

Chao is said to be one of 60 dangerous globalphobes included on a Mexican government watch list recently revealed by the daily Reforma. Also in the rogues gallery (whose existence is denied by the Fox administration): the mild-mannered Noam Chomsky, Jose Bove, the charismatic French goat farmer (a French judge has barred him from leaving his country), the California spiritual feminist leader Starhawk, and John Sellers (the Ruckus Society) and Kevin Danaher (Global Exchange), the architects of Seattle. Also singled out: Lucca Casparini, leader of the “Monos Blancos” (White Overalls) and veteran of many European campaigns, the ultra-left students from the General Strike Council at the National University (UNAM), and the machete-wielding farmers of San Salvador Atenco.

Although the Fox government officially “welcomes” the protests, it is charging foreign activists $100 for a special visa to attend. Cancun municipal authorities expect a $35 million USD windfall from the WTO conclave.

Violence is always a side-bar to global protest and Cancun will not lack for its anarchist Black Bloc–the Carlo Giuliani Brigade, named for the Italian activist killed by police during the Genoa G-8 protests two summers ago–the brigade, led by Mexican punks, includes veterans of the Cancun clashes at the World Economic Forum.

The White Overalls (“Tutti Bianchis’), who in 2001 accompanied the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) up to Mexico City from Chiapas, has also made it clear that it considers the WTO an illegitimate organization and will not respect restricted zones.

Whether the Zapatistas, whose 1996 “InterGalatica” forum in the Lacandon jungle sewed the seeds of Seattle, will put in an appearance is uncertain. At the recent inauguration of their “Caracol” centers in the highlands of Chiapas, the rebels insisted their “word” would be heard in Cancun–but whether it will be accompanied by their bodies is anyone’s guess. With the moral authority the EZLN has cultivated over the past ten years on the Mexican and international Left, the Zapatistas may be the only leadership force that can mediate with those who insist on violent confrontation in Cancun.

JOHN ROSS will be covering the inside and outside of the Cancun clambake. Stay tuned for the highlights.


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to