Cancun Files: WTO Opens to Tragedy and Protest

Tom Hayden reports from the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun each day. Read yesterday's report.

CANCUN, Sept. 10. -- A South Korean farmer, Kun Hai Lee, committed ritual suicide during the WTO's opening day to protest the organization's agricultural policies.

Witnesses said Lee stood in front of police lines, declared that "the WTO kills farmers," and then slashed himself to death with a blade. His suicide came on South Korea's Day of the Dead.

Lee Memory

Activists set up an altar in memory of Lee. Photo by Christine Ahn

Few at the demonstration realized what had occurred until later in the day. As word slowly spread of the suicide, supporters of Kun Hai Lee vowed to protest his martyrdom throughout the coming week, possibly starting with a tent city at the barricades where the death occurred.

The WTO Secretariat issued a one-paragraph statement of "regret" at the death that they described as resulting from a "self-inflicted" wound. Lee's supporters condemned the WTO for the callous description of his death as self-inflicted, which absolved the organization of any responsibility in his death or the fate of thousands of farmers suffering from its policies.

Lee was known for a previous hunger strike outside the WTO Secretariat in Geneva. A decade ago, three South Korean farmers attempted to immolate themselves, and one died, in anti-WTO protests.

Lee's suicide marked the tragic end of a day of loud and sometimes violent protest. Earlier in the day, twenty global justice activists peacefully disrupted today's opening ceremony, sealing their mouths with masking tape to represent the voiceless, but left before they were arrested. Carrying bilingual placards proclaiming "WTO anti-development," "WTO obsolete," and "WTO undemocratic," they visibly ruffled the feathers of the trade organization's director-general, Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand.

Hours later, thousands of campesinos, marching from Cancun's barrio towards the posh hotel zone where the WTO is headquartered, were blocked by a wire-mesh fence and heavily armed police. Immediately, more militant members of direct action affinity groups from the so-called Black Bloc swarmed the fence in an unsuccessful attempt to tear it down.

Black Bloc describes itself as a tactic rather than an organization -- a loose and changing collection of anarchist groups who come together for a specific action. The militants appeared to include Mexican students, Europeans with black flags, Koreans and a few from the U.S. As they raged against the fence, 25 members of Seattle's Infernal Noise Brigade, dressed in black peasant costumes and armed with painted wooden rifles, played drums and chanted. Chac, the Mayan rain god, blessed the dehydrated throng with a twenty-minute shower.

The protesters threw rocks and water bags and attacked the line of police with sticks and poles. They even hurled themselves against the shielded police phalanx, bouncing back into the crowd, then charging again. They were successful in shaking and bending -- but not breaking -- the police fence at the intersection of Kukulcan and Bonampak boulevards, placed as a barrier to the hotel zone. As a result, traffic was blocked for several hours across the city. "Why aren't there wire-cutters?" asked one frustrated militant. Several protesters suffered head wounds during the confrontation, but there were no immediate reports of injuries from the police side.

The confrontation, in clear view of the world's media, demonstrated the deep divisions that continue to bedevil the anti-WTO movement.

While a minority believes in storming the barricades physically and symbolically, larger coalitions prefer peaceful confrontations highlighting the grievances of local community-based movements, such as the farmers who belong to Via Campesina. Wednesday's public rift came after a promising late-night meeting between Via Campesina and Black Bloc members. According to Via Campesina leader, Rafael Alegria Moncada, the Black Bloc agreed not to "intervene" at the fence and remain in the rear ranks of the march. In addition, Alegria negotiated a three kilometer extension of the march with the police, allowing the campesinos to enter the hotel zone that was previously off-limits. The Via Campesina wanted to march "on" the convention center itself, but the three kilometer proposal was seen as at least a partial victory.

Both agreements collapsed when Black Bloc groups began attacking the fence. After a three-hour standoff, the Via Campesina contingent pulled back. It was their last scheduled effort to mount a march, and many began boarding buses to return to their villages this evening. About 2,000 remain encamped at the Casa de la Cultura outside the hotel zone.

Alegria was disappointed but philosophical about the day's outcome. He told AlterNet, "Our objectives were not achieved unfortunately. But what can you say, the others were young people, who came to fight, and it does no good to criticize them". He planned to meet with the remaining Via Campesina contingent tonight to explore their options for the remainder of the week.

Other organizers of the week's protests, including members of Public Citizen and Global Exchange, were seething at the disruption of the campesino march. "Who gives them the right to interfere and impose their agenda on indigenous people?" one prominent activist asked. "Was this what the campesinos took a two-day bus trip for?" asked another. Months of planning and thousands of dollars had been invested in the march, designed to show the human face of the Mexican countryside to the media and WTO delegates.

On the one hand, the small group using Black Bloc tactics succeeded in creating a media spectacle questioning the legitimacy of a beseiged WTO hiding behind military protection. On the other hand, the episode divided the movement and diluted any message being sent by the global South.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the protests are "marginalized," as a recent New York Times editorial suggested. At this point, Cancun 2003 certainly does not compare to Seattle 1999, Washington DC 2000, Prague 2000, Genoa 2001, Quebec 2001, Lazarc (France) 2000, or the anti-war protests of this spring, all events that drew tens of thousands people taking unprecedented mass action. While Cancun is not as isolated as Qatar or the upper Canadian Rockies (where WTO and G-7 meetings have been held in the past), it is difficult terrain for protests, both from a tactical and logistical point of view. Yet as many as 10,000 indigenous people have streamed in from the Mexican countryside to join global non-governmental organizations in a broadening alliance against the trade agreements that leave them out.

In addition, the impact of the movement gathered here has greater influence than ever before. For example, five years ago, Argentina was a poster-child for corporate globalization before its economic collapse. In response, social movements began blocking roads, taking over factories, besieging banks, and forming popular neighborhood assemblies to reclaim their lives. Unexpectedly, this year they elected a populist president, Nestor Kirchner, who, on the eve of the WTO's conference opening, dropped a bombshell by refusing to pay a $3 billion loan to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Heeding the social movement, Kirchner refused the IMF's demands that he slash social programs, increase middle class taxes, allow foreign-owned utilities to raise rates, and banks to foreclose on homeowners without savings.

It was a dream come true for the anti-globalization movement -- all because of an election that the cynics dismissed as meaningless. The Argentina developments followed on the heels of the election of Lula in Brazil, and other populist victories across Latin America.

In an another victory for the movement, on the day the Cancun conference opened, the European Union's high court ruled that European states can ban genetically-modified foods for health reasons, delivering yet another blow to U.S. chemical companies, agribusiness, and the WTO.

The mass protests against the WTO will continue in Cancun and beyond. But what we are seeing behind today's headlines is the growing strength of global justice ideas, which are moving from the outside margins of protest to the mainstream of public opinion in many countries. A poll of Americans released Wednesday found that a majority believe the Bush administration is overemphasizing military approaches and should stress economic reform and diplomacy.

Paradoxically, the movement could encounter more isolation and division right as it reaches the moment of critical mass, just as the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements fell apart in the '70s as their message gained acceptance and their leaders were canonized in a new establishment consensus.

It is far too early to predict this next phase of the global justice movement, except to say that it will need an internal review and course-correction if it is to keep up with the history it has helped unleash.


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