Cancún: Inside the Anti-Imperialist Encampment

by Nikolai Garcia

Revolutionary Worker #1238, May 1, 2004, posted at

It's been 10 years now since the campesinos and indigenous people of Chiapas rose up against the Mexican government when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.

The Mexican people, however, are still suffering.

NAFTA has ruined hundreds of thousands of campesino farmers. Every day hundreds are forced to leave their small towns and move to the overcrowded cities of Mexico or risk possible death trying to cross la frontera into the U.S. to find work. And even as this suffering grows and intensifies, U.S. President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox talk with other "world leaders" of ways to even more thoroughly exploit the land and the people through imperialist treaties. The Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA), for example, aims to extend NAFTA even further to all of Latin America.

But the resistance to all this grows too.

Earlier this year, ruling class representatives from North and South America got together in Monterey, Mexico, for an FTAA meeting. But the meeting was not allowed to go down peacefully, as hundreds of youth and students from all over Mexico showed up to protest.

As I watched the footage and images on Spanish-language television of the anti-FTAA protests and the resisters courageously standing up to riot police, I thought back to my experience last September when I traveled to Cancún, Mexico. There thousands gathered to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

I had gone to Cancún, along with another journalist from the L.A. Writers Collective, Luciente Zamora, to cover the protests and report on the inspiring stories of resistance. (See the two reports by Luciente Zamora-- "The Real Cancún: The March of the Campesinos" and "Dos Rumbos/Two Roads: Voices of the Campesinos," available online at

As I look back, I remember the determined resistance--the thousands of campesino farmers and indigenous people, youth and students from all over Mexico, anti-globalization activists and masses from the poor neighborhoods of Cancún marching alongside activists from other countries like South Korea, the Philippines, and Africa.

I remember the protesters marching towards the double fence that separated them from the WTO meetings. I remember them pushing shopping carts and large trash bins full of sticks, rocks, eggs filled with red paint, and even a large part of a tree and then battling it out with the Policia Federal Preventiva (PFP) at el kilómetro zero.

I remember the rebel youth who courageously cut through and brought down the double fence and afterwards a big U.S. flag going up in flames.

I remember a campesino from southern Mexico describing the intolerable conditions in the countryside and asking, "But who will lead? Where will the [struggle] end up? The campesinos persist and keep going. Their anger against the [government's] reaction is brewing. When this is the situation, the implications are huge."

I remember talking with the young Maoists of the Movimiento Popular Revolucionario (MPR) who united other revolutionary and radical organizations to form the Anti-Imperialist Encampment. The youth in the MPR put forward a real revolutionary alternative for the masses of Mexico--the Maoist path of people's war with the aim of making new democratic revolution followed by socialism and communism.

I remember there was beauty and excitement everywhere during that week of protest.

The beauty was not seen in Cancún's clear-blue oceans, and the excitement was not happening on its white-sand beaches. That week, the moments worth remembering happened in the streets.

Unmasking the WTO

Cancún is a city in a country where campesino farmers and indigenous people know all too well the pain and misery of "free trade" and where student and youth activists have been fighting for years against the privatization of everything--including education.

The combative tone for that whole week was set at the end of the first big march--the March of the Campesinos. It was here that compañero Lee, a 56-year-old leader among Korean farmers, sacrificed his life as a symbol of protest against the forces bringing death and misery to his country. In a message before his death he said, "The pain of my sacrifice symbolizes the pain of all my brothers for whom I give my life today."

After this, we saw contingents made up of various campesinos and indigenous organizations teaming up with anarchists and the forces of the Anti-Imperialist Camp to head to the front of the march. Together with a large contingent of Korean farmers, and with deep hatred for what the WTO has done to the people of the world, they used wire cutters, rope, and confiscated riot police shields to bring down the fence.

The Maoists of the MPR came to Cancún with a bold mission and an inspiring message for the masses of Mexico and the world. They wanted to unmask the real nature of the WTO and let the masses know that revolution was needed in order to uproot imperialist domination.

A young woman with the MPR put it best when she said, "The WTO is an instrument of domination. The people need to realize that the WTO is the enemy but that at the root of that is the capitalist imperialist system. I think what's important about these protests is that people come to see that another system is needed."

In 2001 MPR activists had traveled to Cancún to participate in the protest against the World Economic Forum (WEF)--another predatory financial institution. They summed up their experiences in a pamphlet called "The Battle of Cancún," in which they wrote that with this struggle, "the movement in Mexico fully entered the international movement against imperialist globalization."

With this understanding, the MPR worked with others to forge a diverse grouping of revolutionary and radical forces--and together they took a bold anti-imperialist stand in Cancún 2003.

No Somos Globalifobicos, Somos Anti-Imperialistas!

The Anti-Imperialist Camp was a call to the diverse forces in Cancún to unite against the WTO as an instrument of imperialist domination and to focus their struggle to stop the meeting. A press statement from the encampment explained their objectives:

"To oppose the WTO and struggle to disrupt and stop it is necessary and correct. People from around the world have gathered in this city and have demonstrated a great combativeness and potential to unite against imperialism while respecting different forms of struggle. We have received support from the masses, especially after learning the objectives of our struggle. We are not globalifobicos [the name the Mexican government invented for anti- globalization activists to claim that they are against "progress"] or globalifilicos [the capitalists who love globalization], we are anti-imperialists."

No other contingent in Cancún was putting forward the politics of anti-imperialism. My eyes got wider and wider when I first saw them marching down the hot burning streets with a gigantic colorful banner at the front of their contingent that read: ENCAMPAMENTO ANTI IMPERIALISTA.

The contingent was both playful and serious as they marched with their loud and spirited chants that ridiculed the ruling class. I remember one chant in particular that everybody liked: "People unite, today is your day, kick the bourgeoisie's ass. They fuck us over at night, they fuck us over in the day, they fuck us over all the time."

The camp was set up in a public park--El Parque de las Palapas--so that the activists could be close to and interact with the masses of Cancún. They laid out tents and sleeping bags on one side of the park, put up shade for their meetings, and decorated the park with colorful flags and banners. One banner had a picture of the U.S. flag with a fist ripping through it. A large red banner had the words "Revolución es la Solución."

The youth interacted with each other in the same way they did with the masses of Cancún. They listened to each other and helped each other out. Everyone made sure they put in their share of work so that the camp was always safe, secure, and as neat as possible. In the camp they also prepared and had their collective meals. Women were not stuck doing kitchen duties as men put in time for cooking--and on some days you saw only men chopping vegetables, cooking soup, and serving their fellow comrades.

The mood and atmosphere of the camp was always vibrant, full of political discussions and wrangling about many different questions.

One person in the camp talked about the importance of having an anti-imperialist stand and taking it out among the masses. "[We want] to create an anti-imperialist pole and define who our enemy is and who our allies are-- this will isolate the enemy politically. Many organizations don't have this framework. The struggle that we are waging now is to raise the consciousness of people. There is one enemy. That's the point we're working to get across."

I was excited to meet the new generation of Mexican youth who were fighting back against imperialism-- especially the Maoists who fought back not only with rocks but with theory.

Fighting Back with Rocks and Theory

I remember looking through article after article about the Cancún protests in the mainstream bourgeois press and noticing right away that the voices of the MPR activists were missing. In speaking and learning from them, it became strikingly clear that they were saying something that no one else in Mexico is saying.

Some of them came all the way from Mexico City where they work or attend school. Others had campesino backgrounds and came from rural states in southern Mexico. Although they came from different walks of life, they were united in their belief that Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is the most advanced and revolutionary theory. They used MLM in everything they did, especially as they participated in and played an important role within the Anti-Imperialist Encampment.

Juan, who came to Cancún with the MPR, said, "I came here to stop the WTO. But we also want people to know what the WTO is."

During the brief moments that Juan took time to rest after a day of street fighting with federal police and talking to the people in the ghettos of Cancún, he spoke to me of how he became politicized.

"I met Maoism when I was into Che Guevara. I participated in the protests against the war in Iraq [where I met people from the MPR]. What won me over was the political line of the MPR."

Like many other youth in the Anti-Imperialist Encampment, Juan was deeply impacted by the righteous student strike against the privatization of Mexico's largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

He said that it was during those times that he began to pick up books by Karl Marx. He began to understand the world better, and he began to see how it needed to be radically transformed. And hooking up with the Maoists helped him understand that having a correct political line is key.

"I've changed a lot. I used to think that what we needed to do was unite everybody on the left, make revolution, and then settle the differences. Now I know that if we don't have the correct line, even if we make revolution, it won't be worth shit. All thinking is stamped with the outlook of one class or another."

Juan told me that what kept him going was fighting for a better future. This future is spelled out in the MPR's five point program: 1. People's republic; 2. Confiscate the property of the imperialists, big capitalists, and landlords; 3. Land to the tiller; 4. Regional autonomy and equality for the indigenous peoples; 5. Equality for women. (From "The Battle of Cancún.")

"Imagining the future is what motivates me to keep on going," Juan said.

A great inspiration for the MPR is the people's war in Nepal, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). A Maoist campesino said, "The struggle in Nepal gives us strength. We consider it part of our struggle. We would like to see that develop here in given time. We have to prepare the grounds to make that a reality.The semi-feudal conditions in Nepal are similar to the conditions in Mexico. They're not exactly the same since Mexico has its own particularities; it has its own distinct conditions. However, the essence of the exploitation that exists is the same."

Going Out to the Real Cancún

The Anti-Imperialist Camp organized in brigades to take out the politics of anti-imperialism to the masses. They especially focused on mobilizing and going out to the "other" Cancún--the real Cancún populated by the people who scratch out a living working in the fancy hotels or laboring as maids, taxi drivers, construction workers, and street vendors. These are people who are harassed and brutalized by the police if they even step into the hotel zone without an official work badge.

The youth in the brigades spoke about how the enormous difference between the haves and the have-nots in Cancún is a reflection of Mexican society at large. One youth said, "There is a great difference between the Cancún that the tourists see and the Cancún the masses live in. On one side you see extreme luxury, on the other there are shacks and a people who must work or go hungry."

The Maoist revolutionaries see raising the level of political understanding among the masses as a crucial task. Some of the residents of Cancún didn't know much about the WTO or why the youth were there protesting. But many welcomed the anti-imperialist stand of the brigades and the analysis of the Maoists of what is the problem and what is the solution.

There were many instances when the masses--after finding out about and being inspired by the politics of the camp--brought them food, water, and things to fight back with, like bottles, sticks, and rocks. Leo said, "[The people of Cancún] understand these things because they live a really tough reality. They absorb things, and they know that what we need is a change. That's why there are street vendors who support us by giving us food."

There was a sense of urgency among the youth in the brigades. Leo said, "Imagine what will happen if there isn't a revolution. As things are now, there are people who die on the street, without a dime. My people die on the streets and in the countryside. The environment and the forests are disappearing. If I had a child there would be no more forests or drinkable water for him. That's why I say that we can't give up, not even if that means risking our lives. What kind of world is in store for us if we don't?"

Many masses in Cancún are fed up with the oppressed situation they're in. The wide-raging discussions the youth in the brigades had with the poor and oppressed brought out the need for fundamental change. Rosa said it was important that masses connected with communist politics and to know that there is a way out of all this. "People need to recognize that we need a new system in place. How can we get to a different system? Well, I think that needs to happen under the leadership of the proletariat."

Incident at El Parque de las Palapas

In the 2001 Cancún protests against the WEF, protesters were brutally attacked when riot police unleashed a massive assault.

And this time around, the ruling class once again was up to its methods of repression and intimidation.

After the Marcha Campesina, the Policia Federal Preventiva began moving in and encircling both the Anti- Imperialist Camp and the anarchist Carlo Giuliani camp nearby. Simultaneously, in another part of town, the riot police also got close to where the Korean farmers had set up camp.

That night some of the youth in the Anti-Imperialist Camp noticed that there was a larger police presence than usual in the area. They alerted others, and the camp members soon gathered together to plan what they would do about the possible approaching danger.

After the meeting the mood of the camp changed, and everyone became vigilant. They decided to call upon the Carlo Giuliani camp to move closer to the Anti-Imperialist Camp. This was important in case police attacked and tried to isolate either of the groups.

The riot police was not counting on this to happen. The ruling class uses the state apparatus against the people by trying to divide the movement. In their pamphlet the MPR pointed out that the anti-globalization movement should not let itself be divided by the tactics of the imperialists and instead fight to unite all who can be united against the common enemy.

The unity displayed at El Parque de las Palapas was something the ruling class did not want to see--but it was a great lesson for the movement and for revolution. A participant in the Anti-Imperialist Camp told us, "The nature of the system is to come down on and attack the people. But I think that the harder the system comes down on people, the greater the resistance against it. This is an important lesson for the revolution. This means that we have to unite with other groups, even if they have different lines."

He pointed out that the anarchists and the Anti-Imperialist Camp had political differences, but they came together in the face of an intense and repressive atmosphere perpetrated by the common enemy. "Yesterday, I think a big altercation was prevented because of the actions we took and because we united at a critical moment and they weren't able to disperse us like they expected to."

"We Have to Get at the Root and Rip It Out!"

Jesus was among the thousands of protesters who traveled to Cancún--some for hundreds and thousands of miles--because of their hatred for the WTO and the devastating effects and deadly consequences it has on millions around the world.

Jesus is from Chiapas and has lived the consequences of imperialist globalization. He owns no land and has worked the lands of big landlords in Chiapas since he was very young. As a young adult, Jesus traveled across the border into the U.S. and worked on a tobacco plantation for several months. He was wrongly jailed for a crime he didn't commit and had difficulty getting out because he doesn't speak English. He wanted answers to why he's spent his lifetime working and still has nothing.

Now he travels from state to state following construction developments throughout Mexico. He sells his labor at whatever price because he must compete with many others in his situation. Now he's working at a construction site in Cancún. He was on his way home when he walked past the Anti-Imperialist Encampment, saw a bright banner that read "Revolución es la Solución," and stopped to talk to the youth of the MPR. He bought some of the MPR's literature and other communist literature.

A youth with the MPR explained, "Right here in Mexico, there are many, many people who are dissatisfied with the system, but they don't have a well defined political line. Many think that reform is the best option, but we have to make those people see that it's not about being oppressed just a little bit less or a little bit more. This is about an entire system and what it does to us--we have to uproot this system and everything that comes with it.

Something very significant was happening in Cancún. Jesus and the dozens of other campesinos we interviewed, and the thousands who came out to protest the WTO, were starting to connect with revolutionary communist politics.

Speaking about resistance against the system, the MPR youth added, "There has to be a broader, more far reaching, more extensive, and more revolutionary movement to change the world at its very foundations--at the root. We can't kill the weed by just trimming the leaves--we have to get at the root and rip it out!"

* * *

As I remember all the events that happened last September in Cancún, I think about a quote from Mao Tsetung:

"The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the final analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you."

Information on the L.A. Writers Collective is available online at