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Cancun Files: A Day of Cooperation

While members of G-21 led by Brazil ally themselves with activists to resist U.S. pressure, protesters have a rare moment of accord with the police.
 
 
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Tom Hayden reports from the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun each day. Read yesterday's report.

CANCUN, Sept.11 (1:40 PM) -- While protestors succeeded in taking direct action inside the WTO security perimeter today, delegates from the global South reported that the White House was making phone calls leaning on their governments, who are fighting for impoverished small farmers. In response, the Brazilian government's negotiators opened a new alliance with global activist organizations to push back at the rich countries.

Mexican police have cordoned marchers behind barricades ten kilometers from the convention center. But moving individually and in small groups, with some dressed as tourists, at least a hundred protestors engaged in street actions and draped a banner from a construction site visible from the center. The protest led to several arrests. Led by Teamster activist Jennifer Esposito, 40 U.S. protestors were thrown out of a private meeting between members of Congress, Wal-Mart, JC Penney, the Gap, the Limited, and Target meant to promote the benefits of corporate liberalization in southern Africa.

Meanwhile the Bush Administration was ratcheting up the pressure, reportedly making direct phone calls lobbying Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Thailand, South Africa, the Philippines and possibly others affiliated with the Group of 21 (G21) that was formed a month ago to challenge Western agribusiness subsidies. Together, the 21 governments represent over 60 percent of the world's rural population.

Brazil's government was warned it was "not in their interest" to be aligned with the G-21, while Colombia and Costa Rica were informed that their talks with Washington on free trade were in jeopardy due to their position. While the White House strategy was denounced as "bullying" by Lori Wallach of Citizens Trade Watch and a coalition of non-governmental organizations, there were no signs, at least today, that the G-21 nations are succumbing to the U.S. and EU campaign.

In a significant new development, the Brazilian negotiating team held a closed-door briefing for civil society activists from nearly 20 countries, including the U.S., Germany, France, Norway, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Mexico, the U.K., Holland, India, the Philippines and Australia. Brazil's government, which was a catalyst in building the G-21, is led by Inacio Lula da Silva, whose Workers Party has sponsored two previous global forums bringing together the social justice movements. Today's meeting, facilitated by Wallach, was a new step in coordinating progressive citizen campaigns with progressive governments challenging the WTO's priorities from within.

Declaring the status quo unacceptable, the Brazilians said there was no reason for optimism at the moment but pointed to a "a certain space for talks to continue." Reflecting a consensus in the room, they said no agreement at Cancun would be better than a bad agreement. Asked by Global Exchange's Kevin Danaher whether Brazil was supportive of an alliance among small farming interests, including U.S. family farmers, against the corporate agricultural interests of the U.S. and EU, the Brazilian minister declared "Si!" and commended the NGO's for moving the globalization debate forward.

Differences emerged in the meeting as well. India's Vandana Shiva condemned the existing trade regime, the so-called Uruguay Round, as "devastating," noting reports of 20,000 farmer suicides in her country. Issues of import regulation and biodiversity should not be "dropped through the cracks" in the current negotiations, she added.

The Brazilians were not optimistic at the moment on the state of discussions with the U.S. and EU. The U.S. negotiating language was becoming a "little harsh," they said.. On the other hand, U.S. negotiators were still asking the G21 "what can you give us," indicating the possibility of a negotiated outcome by Sunday.

The newborn G21, while still fragile, is a strategic project that will continue beyond Cancun and address critical issues other than agriculture.

CANCUN, Sept. 12, (8 PM) -- The demonstration that shut down traffic around the WTO convention center was imagined for months but planned only this morning by the direct action wing of the global justice movement.

At 5:30 p.m., a 61 year old woman from Humboldt County, dressed as a tourist, stationed herself under a sign reading "This Is Not Here" inside the Hard Rock Cafe. Promptly at 6:30, she began strolling north on Avenida Kukulkan, the fenced-off thoroughfare that circles the WTO convention center. She arrived at her chosen spot at 6:45, and then lay down in the middle of the street.

Others, including a bloc of Mexican students, were converging on the same spot, located immediately in front of the imposing center. Inside the building, still others wandered inconspicuously, waiting. At 6:45, someone announced loudly, "Ladies and Gentleman of the media, please step outside to the demonstration."

By now eight people were lying in the street on their backs shouting "No OMC" with such vigor that they appeared to be doing sit-ups. They wriggled back and forth in front of oncoming traffic, which was at a stand-still for over an hour.

Our 61-year old, who passionately believes in total organic revolution, was pleased to be the oldest member of the direct action force, which included up to 60 members at this time. Someone from her Pagan Bloc, which overlaps the Green Bloc, as distinct from the violent Black Bloc, told her to show up this morning to participate in the action.

When about eight people showed up, the subject was how to breach the fences keeping people from the convention center. Participants realized that that fences have holes -- the security forces could stop an organized brigade but not tiny rivulets flowing through openings.

Trainers experienced in civil disobedience at other global summits, like Starhawk and Lisa Fithian, spent considerable time nurturing the plan, which unfolded smoothly and peacefully. While some sat in the street, about 50 locked hands, chanted, sang, and danced in a spiral pattern for an hour. A bilingual, green-and-black banner declaring "Grow Your Sovereignty" was unfurled. Seeds of organic corn were strewn, and potted banana and almond trees were placed on the boulevard. As initial anxiety eased, the festive crowd began to sing "We are the rising of the moon/ the shifting of the ground/ the seed that takes root/ that brings the fortress down" (the cadence alternating with "brings the OMC down.").

About 50 heavily-uniformed riot police stood ready behind a nearby wall. Paranoia rose and fell about the possibility of an experimental gas being used on the demonstrators. One long-haired young man ran up yelling that police were beating up Mexicans on the other side of the center. The rumor was rejected by experienced coordinators using cell phones of their own. The Mexican security forces obviously were under strict orders not to provoke the protestors. Unlike the police response at other summits, there was no intimidation, no macho bluster, no over-reaction.

The media and experienced skeptics waited for the final act. After three hours, police buses were drawn up, portable fences were brought in, larger numbers of security guards arrived and, out of sight, the riot police were ordered into readiness. But on the street the demonstrators engaged in patient, perhaps tedious, discussions among themselves and with police representatives. In a surprise ending, the police offered to transport the demonstrators back to their campgrounds in the barrio on air-conditioned tourist buses, with media observers on board to assure safety. There would be no arrests, though it wasn't clear what the morning would bring, especially for protestors from other countries who might receive legal warnings.

It was an effective, motivated, highly-charged, and even pleasant break from the alternating tedium and tension of the preceding days. Not a Cancun spring break, but a break from entrenched habits of conflict and control. One old hand at civil disobedience, Kevin Danaher from Global Exchange, remarked in wonder as the buses pulled away, "this should be a model for some American police departments."

As the streets returned to normal, and there were 43 hours left in the ministerial.