Cancun Report: As Empire Builder, the U.S. Feels the Heat

CANCUN, Sept. 8. -- "The Real Cancun" is a pretty trashy film, with hard-partying American college kids being awakened by mariachi musicians against the vista of a Hilton hotel designed like the nearby Mayan ruins. In one scene, its hero, Alan, tells his drinking partner, "People like what they can't have. So, if you want a girl to really like you, just blow her off."

I cannot recall if George Bush ever got loaded in Cancun, but he seems to be following Alan's advice. Having blown off the United Nations over Iraq, he now hopes that the Security Council will be charmed by his request for money and troops. And the world-class cad that he is, Bush is also freezing the status of the poor in the global economy.

Bush has been spending more in Iraq than on the United Nations' global anti-poverty initiatives. If $60 billion this year is a conservative estimate for Iraq, that's twice what it would take to retire the debt of the developing nations, and three times the cost of eliminating extreme hunger, meeting the AIDS crisis, or stopping soil erosion.

In comparison, the U.S. contribution to the UN global anti-poverty program is 0.13 percent of our gross economic product, about one-tenth the percentage spent during the Kennedy Administration in 1962. In the meantime, child labor (10 to 14 year olds) is 14 percent of the Brazilian workforce, 13 percent in the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, 12 percent in Nicaragua, and 11 percent in Bolivia.

While waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Administration has managed to lose most of Europe and Latin America. Bush (and Monsanto's) battle to impose genetically-altered crops on Europe has lost American agri-business $1 billion during the past five years. And $190 billion in U.S. farm subsidies has inflamed discontent from Brazil to Mexico.

Meanwhile, the neo-conservative dream of a permanent American empire is turning out to be short-lived. In the longer view, of course, America (and the West) are rooted in a history of colonialism, crusades and the slave trade spanning five centuries. The settling of America was an extension of empire, then of manifest destiny, then of global dominance in the past fifty years. But the recent advocacy of an American empire began just more than a decade ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union. Then came the WTO and talk of a New World Order. Today that imperial thinking is being seriously challenged once again.

Just as U.S. military unilateralism has failed at the UN, U.S. economic unilateralism is being resisted in the WTO. Like Alan in the movie, Bush is not likely to get the girl. Instead, the sole superpower is looking lonely in Cancun, besieged by forces within and without.

U.S. trade negotiators are working overtime to produce "momentum" from the Cancun talks, but with little success.

Cancun itself, a lavish symbol of distorted development and narco- trafficking, has elected a Green Party mayor to begin regulating the flow of foreign investment. Nevertheless, the U.S. wants to "liberalize" the tourism sector, while the European Union hopes to eliminate the need to obtain permits for hotels, restaurants and tourist operations. Cancun's water supply was privatized by an Enron subsidiary in the mid-Nineties. The water, according to environmental specialists, is dirtier than before but costs consumers four times as much. There is also a push to open rich genetic diversity and forests surrounding Cancun to corporate prospectors under privatization provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS).

In hopes of salvaging a victory in Cancun, the U.S. recently ended its opposition to a plan for poor countries to obtain generic medicines to treat HIV and a handful of other life-threatening diseases. But that deal, in response to global grassroots pressure, is far from nailed down, and will be overshadowed by other conflicts this week.

The flashpoint at this summit is the disintegration of rural economies after a decade of NAFTA and rising U.S. subsidies. Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Times article titled, "Free Trade Proves Devastating for Mexican Farmers," described angry protestors who rode on horseback through the elegant doors of the nation's capital, while farmers carrying firebombs and machetes abducted government officials to prevent the seizure of their land for a $2.3 billion international airport northeast of Mexico City. After unprecedented absenteeism in Mexico's July 6 elections, Vicente Fox, the hero of Nineties neo-liberalism, has conceded his government's failure to heed a "widespread social call for deeper and more dynamic change."

But the wave of grassroots uprisings is not limited to Mexico.

Even under a friendlier political climate, Brazil's landless movement (MSN), which represents 1.5 million members, has resumed its direct action campaign to obtain unoccupied land, and birthed a new campaign known as "the roofless movement" among the urban homeless.

In post-apartheid South Africa, movements among "the poors" are struggling to reconnect electricity and water supplies in slums where at least one million people were cut off due to lack of funds. Their anger even extends to the governing African National Congress which, they assert, has voluntarily imposed its own neo-liberal program to please investors, including cutting taxes on the rich, eliminating currency exchange controls, and tolerating job losses of 100,000 per year.

A huge question hovering over Cancun this week is whether the Zapatistas will challenge the WTO Ministerial meeting or deem it irrelevent. The social movement triggered by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas has filtered throughout Mexico in the past decade. Recently the Zapatistas terminated all contact with government negotiators and political parties, choosing to directly implement a broader self-government in some 40 "autonomous municipalities" outside state or corporate control.

But with or without the Zapatistas, the Mexican security forces are "creating an overbearing climate of fear and tension" in this resort town, according to Global Exchange's Deborah James. One police commissioner has vowed to "trade an eye for an eye," while officials have set aside bullfighting and football stadiums for mass detentions. A secretive "watch list" has been prepared by Mexican officials, no doubt with FBI assistance, and as a result certain anti- globalization activists have been forced to move from their hotels.

This week, it's a surreal Cancun on display. A Cancun where spin doctors prepare feel-good press releases in barricaded enclaves of affluence. As the American empire shudders, as the WTO searches for consensus to disguise the inner divides, as progressive coalitions and parties flounder under neo- liberalism, the community-based social movements push forward, making local history in this interim -- holding to a vision larger than any can presently fulfill. The future is uncertain, but they are not going back to either the Monroe Doctrine or the military dictatorships from which Latin America has emerged.

They are demonized still as "globalphobics" by WTO promoters, mere maladjusted parochialists resisting the modern world. In truth, many of the local residents and workers protesting the WTO here knew little about the organization until they heard of its impending arrival. But they already knew about privatization and the selling of their resources. Now they are connecting the dots between their water bills and the globalization apparatus of power that controls their lives.

One of them, Jose Saldivar, coordinates the "Committee of Bienvenidos" which welcomes delegates from social movements around the world. He says his friends are not globalphobic at all, especially those who sweep the streets, clean the hotels, and wash the dishes for thousands of sunburned and drunken tourists each year. They are "alternmundistas," Saldivar says, people who believe that an alternative world is possible.

This week thousands of protesters will show the powers-that-be that people do indeed want what they can't have, and do not like being blown off.


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