Cancun Confrontation

Thousands Protest the WTO and Capitalist Globalization

by Orpheus

Revolutionary Worker #1213, September 21, 2003, posted at

"The people who govern the country want to change the future of Mexico. Well, we also want to change our future--and there are a lot more of us. We belong to our land. We don't belong to the foreigners that want to fuck us over. Even though the government attacks us, even though they wage low- intensity wars that affect our people, we will resist."

"They want to ransack everything, but we're not going to let them. We will fight to the end."

Two campesinos from Chiapas at the anti- WTO protest in Cancun

Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico --Greetings from Cancun, the latest battle zone against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and global capitalism!

The WTO came here to conduct its 5th ministerial meeting, locked in isolation behind metal fences and protected by thousands of Mexican federal police. But on every front, the WTO was sharply opposed by determined protests.

The Mexican government put up the police barricades at the entrance to the hotel/tourist zone, miles away from the WTO meeting site. Daily actions confronted police at those barricades. A major high point was the march of 15,000 peasant farmers and supporters from around the world on Wednesday, September 10. In the midst of an intense face-off with the police on that day, a Korean farmer stabbed himself to death in protest of the WTO policies.

There is a stark contrast between the wealthy hotel zone and the part of Cancun where ordinary poor and working people live (see the box "Apartheid Cancun"). In the city of Cancun itself, various protests, encampments, forums, and cultural events filled the streets and public spaces. A headline in a local paper said "Protests are Overflowing."

Thousands from around the world came together to resist the WTO: campesinos from Mexico and Central America; small farmers from South Korea and other countries; students from Mexico; international anti-globalization activists from the U.S., Europe, Canada, and Australia; Filipino anti-imperialists; environmentalists, trade unionists, anarchists, and revolutionary forces from Mexico and the U.S.; and others. Representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who oppose the WTO and capitalist globalization also voiced their dissent.

Through the days of protest and resistance, a beautiful, invigorating sense of commonality grew among people from different countries--overcoming separation by geography as well as national and cultural differences.

The March of Campesinos and Small Farmers

The Sept. 10 farmers march began at La Casa de Cultura, a large area where the farmers encampment and forums were being held. When we arrived, the Korean delegation, led by drummers, was marching around with colorful flags. The delegation was made up of people from the Korean Farmers League, Korean Council of Trade Unions, teachers organizations, and social movements groups. The delegation said it represented more than 700,000 people in their organizations.

A representative of the delegation linked the devastating effects of global capitalism with U.S. wars in Iraq and threats against North Korea. She told me, "We think that the WTO and free trade agreements and also militarization is the same process, the so-called globalization. We believe that this process is militarized globalization."

Making up the main part of the march were contingents of campesinos from Chiapas, Veracruz, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca, Puebla, and other Mexican states. Many people wore the bright green scarves of Via Campesina, one of the main groups organizing the protest. Written on the scarves were the words "Globalize the struggle. Globalize hope."

One campesino from Chiapas told us they were there to manifest their opposition because the WTO was threatening to destroy their natural food crops and seeds and also causing the expansion of the use of toxic chemicals. He said of the WTO, "They poison the earth and the people."

Some folks wore dolphin outfits to protest the way the resorts are capturing and confining dolphins for use as a tourist attraction.

The march flowed into the street with colored flags of all kinds in the air. Korean drummers pounded out a beat and others sang with fists in the air. People chanted, "Zapata vive vive, la lucha sigue, sigue!" ("Zapata lives, lives, the struggle continues, continues!")

We arrived at the ten-foot-tall metal fences barring entrance to the hotel zone. Towering above were giant billboards saying, "Bienvenidos todos a Cancun." ("Welcome everyone to Cancun.") Behind the barricades stood lines of riot police stretched over several hundred yards.

The Korean delegation headed to the front. A banner saying "NO to WTO, Resist Imperialist Globalization" and other banners went up on the fence. The Koreans chanted, "Down, down, WTO. Down, down USA."

According to reports we heard, the campesinos demanded access through the barricades--and the police refused. The anger of the people at the WTO came together with the sentiment that the authorities wouldn't even allow the protesters a hearing and that the working people living in Cancun were always prevented from the beach area. People began climbing and rocking the fence. A colorful float on a wooden pallet made by the Koreans was repeatedly rammed into the fence to try to batter it open. Banners and sticks were lit on fire on the fence.

As drum corps beat out a rhythm, the fence came under siege by Korean farmers and workers, Mexican campesinos and youth, anarchists, Mexican Maoists, and youth from other countries. Rocks, sticks, and metal traffic barricades were hurled over the fence at the police as youth climbed to the top. Concrete blocks were broken up and thrown at the police. Police fired off tear gas and threw rocks back, injuring a number of protesters.

Finally the protesters succeeded in tearing the fence down in one spot and turning it upside down across a hundred-yard front. Lines of riot cops filled the breach. People fought them with sticks and projectiles, and the police pounded on activists with heavy batons. According to one local newspaper, 19 police were injured.

Some of the campesino organizations encouraged people to withdraw, and numbers of people left the area. Others stayed. One campesino from Puebla state told the RW , "It makes me crazy to see the police be able to take away anything we have.... If they are hitting us, how the hell can we let them? Whatever they do to us, we're going to do right back to them. Yes, because they beat us as if we were animals."

After some time a stalemate developed, and the protest turned even more celebratory. People clapped in time as a Mexican mariachi band marched up to the front and began playing. Indigneous people in traditional dress danced together to the music with drummers from the Infernal Noise Brigade in their orange, brown, and silver uniforms. To the side a Korean delegation member addressed a crowd of Mexican campesinos. As his speech was translated into Spanish, the campesinos chanted, "Ko-re-a! Ko-re-a!"

After the clash, youth proudly displayed shields and batons they had claimed from police in the fight. We asked one man how he had come to get his shield. A friend answered with a laugh, "There's a store up there selling them cheap!" A young man from Cancun told us that many local people from Cancun had joined the protests. He said that life for the poor people in Cancun is "una porquería" (filth). He told us, "What happens today is very simple... No matter what happens, we're going to get there. We're not tourists, we came to fight."

"Todos Somos Lee"

Soon after the farmers march arrived at the police barricade, a Korean farmer in his 50s, Lee Kyung Hae, climbed the fence and thrust a dagger into his heart. He wore a sign around his neck saying "WTO kills farmers." Lee was carried through the large protest crowd and later died from his injuries. Shocked and saddened by the death of "compañero Lee," the anti- WTO protesters held memorials in his honor on the following days and vowed to continue the resistance.

On Sept. 11, farmers and others marched back to the spot of Lee's death. Mexican campesinos from the group Via Campesina and Korean farmers marched arm in arm at the front, carrying flowers to set up a memorial. The people chanted "Todos somos Lee" (We are all Lee). Strong bonds between the small farmers from Korea and Mexican campesinos developed in the course of fighting side by side. A wake for Lee, held at the campesino encampment, was attended by a thousand people.

The South Korean delegation held the WTO and global capital responsible for Lee's death. WTO decisions and trade liberalization are causing the ruin of Korean rice farmers due to flooding of the Korean market with cheap rice from foreign agribusiness. The delegation held a press conference to declare their intention to carry forward their plans to oppose the WTO meeting. They also demanded that the South Korean government delegation withdraw from the meeting and that the WTO meeting be suspended.

Other Actions

There were many other actions over the week. On Sept. 9, the day of global action vs. the WTO, 1,500 marched to the police fence. Among the marchers were Mexican students who had come on a caravan from Mexico City and youth from around the world. Mexican Maoists inspired by the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement led chants at the fence saying "Long live the people's war in Nepal! Long Live the People's War in Peru!" One Maoist youth climbed up on a fountain and waved a red hammer and sickle flag. Another youth with the group told me, "Revolution is the only solution in this world. There is no other way. There is no peace. The masses gotta take over the power. Without power, all is illusion."

On Thursday, Sept. 11, thousands of youth jumped off into the streets after a cultural event at the Palapas Park in downtown Cancun. A militant march followed, and some windows at Pizza Hut were broken. Also on the 11th, activists from a group called Health Gap bound themselves together with red tape and stood up to denounce the WTO policies that prevent life-saving medicines from reaching millions in the poor countries. They chanted, "Medicine for people of every nation!" Other actions took place inside the hotel zone on Sept. 12.

Marching Against Globalization and War

On Saturday, Sept. 13, protesters again seized the streets to speak with one voice against globalization and war. Ten thousand people marched to the barricades--Mexican labor union members, representatives of NGOs, tons of Mexican youth and students, and "internationals." Some Mexican youth had a banner painted with an image of a fist breaking through the U.S. flag. The park area at the entrance to the hotel zone was covered with signs declaring it as "Plaza Lee"--for Lee Kyung Hae.

Among the marchers was a Not In Our Name (NION) contingent from the U.S. West Coast. Contingent members told me that they had come to Cancun to stand in solidarity with the struggle against WTO and globalization, and to spread their message about the need to build resistance against U.S. wars of aggression around the world.

An international from the San Francisco Bay Area said he had been part of an action the day before of 100 people that blocked the road inside the hotel zone near the convention center.

At one point in the march, a contingent of women rushed to the front. As others joined in, the women used hammers, pry bars, bolt cutters, and their hands to tear the fence apart bit by bit. As they ripped holes in the outer part, they would begin work on another section inside. Then the police would slam the fence back in place and chain sections of traffic barricades to the fence. But people kept cutting up the fence.

Protesters worked together to tie long ropes to sections of the fence. Lines of people formed up to pull on the ropes, and pieces of the fence were ripped off as the crowd cheered, chanted, and drummed. Big sections were carried off by youth. Many youth had come ready for battle. They wore masks and padding and had shopping carts loaded with rocks, bricks, sticks, poles, and even a long palm tree to use as a battering ram.

Eventually the whole front gate section of the fence was ripped away and tossed aside. Then the people in the front of the action, several hundred strong, sat down in the street. A big effigy of the WTO and a huge U.S. flag were burned as everyone cheered and celebrated. The organizers then decided to lead people on a march away from the fence.

Struggle Continues

Life under the rule of global capitalism means misery, poverty, ruin, and death for billions of people on this planet. And the global capitalists of the WTO came to Cancun to discuss how they could even more thoroughly exploit the people and resources of the world.

These global oppressors are pushing to intensify the imperialist control of agriculture in the poor countries. They are trying to further "privatize" services such as health, water, education, and transportation in the poor nations so their capitalist corporations can gobble them up. And they are seeking to push forward with "new issues" in investment and government procurement, allowing the transnationals from the U.S. and European Union to gain more control over and profit from industry in the oppressed nations.

Inside the WTO itself, various contradictions--especially between the rich and poor countries-- surfaced more, threatening the possibility of reaching agreements. But no matter what comes out of the WTO's Cancun meeting, the WTO once again had been clearly indicted in front of the world's people.

Since 1999 the WTO has been trying to overcome the defeat at the "Battle of Seattle," when massive protests stopped its meeting in that city. In Cancun, the WTO was again rocked by the determination and creative protests of the people's representatives in the streets. Powerful resistance ripped at and exposed the WTO and the system. New strands of unity were built between people from many countries. And the struggles against the WTO, capitalist globalization, and imperialist war will continue.

It's been a special honor to work together with compañeros from Mexico, the S.F. Bay Area, Seattle, and Los Angeles in this coverage. Special thanks to Zara, Luciente, Nikolai, and all the NIONistas!


Apartheid and Cancun

Cancun is known worldwide as a tourist paradise where people from wealthy countries come to bask in the sun, swim with the dolphins, and party. But there is a starkly different reality for the Mexican people who live in Cancun, a sprawling city of 750,000 people.

The city is separated from "la zone hotelera" (the hotel zone) where the WTO meeting was held--and not just by geography. As noted by activists with the Cancun Welcoming Committee (who helped coordinate the anti-WTO protests and forums), Cancun is a city that concentrates the inequality, corruption, and poverty brought by capitalist globalization. A comfortable, wealthy lifestyle for a few. A life of back-breaking labor and desperate poverty for the many.

The authorities have made it clear that the hotel zone is for the tourists. For most of the local population, the zone is off-limits unless they're wearing their work badges. Otherwise, they're subject to police harassment just for stepping into the area. The people who live and work here can't even walk on the beautiful beaches of Cancun.

Large hotels and businesses began to be built in Cancun about 30 years ago. Tourism corporations sought to take advantage of the area's natural beauty to make big profits. Poor people from Quintana Roo state and elsewhere began pouring in to the area to find work. But no thought or attention has been paid to their needs. Tens of thousands try to scrape out a living by working in the tourist hotels for low wages and tips. After laboring in the posh resorts and hotels, the workers must go home miles away to the tenements and colonias of Cancun.

Many live in even deeper levels of poverty. A recent Nation magazine titled "Beyond Globalization's Glitz" reports that up to 40,000 people of Mayan ancestry live in tiny rooms called "palapas" behind the tenements.

According to the Welcoming Committee activists, basic services such as water, sewer, and garbage removal are poor or non-existent for the majority of people living in Cancun. Because of the lack of a decent sewer system, the tap water is basically undrinkable. People must buy their water, paying more for a liter of drinking water than a liter of gas.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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