The resort of Cancun seemed the perfect place for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to hold its talks.
The Zona Hotelera, where the convention centre lies, is a strip of land with beautiful beaches on one side and separated from the town by a crocodile-infested lagoon on the other. The Ritz, Sheraton, Meridian and dozens of other multimillion dollar hotels line the strip, and the street signs and shop fronts are written in English: ’liquor store‘, ’drugstore‘, ’T-bone steak‘. The Zona is a playground for the rich of the US, while half the population of Cancun (a town created solely to service the resorts) are without access to basic services such as clean water. The cesspit sitting under the town is full to overflowing.
The alternative events took place over a week from 7 to 14 September, with forums, workshops and actions organised every day on all kinds of issues - water privatisation, education, healthcare, debt, fair trade, biodiversity, indigenous peoples. Many of the same debates and questions came up in the workshops as we face here: how do we get more people involved in the movement? Can we create the ’better world‘ bit by bit, or is more radical change necessary? How do we link up all the issues people are campaigning over?
Organisers talked about three aims of the counter-action: first, to derail the talks; second, to create an alternative zone of resistance; and third, to build the international movement through communication and cooperation between different groups. The first major event was the farmers‘ march on Wednesday. Campesinos (farmers and agricultural workers) from all over the world united with trade unionists, students and anti-capitalists from Mexico, Latin America, the US, Africa and Europe to march on the Zona. There are only two ways into the Zona, and fences and lines of riot police barricaded both. It was at the fence that South Korean farmer Lee Kyung-Hae took his own life in protest at the agricultural policies of the WTO. The words on his banner resounded all week: ’The WTO kills farmers‘.
The next day - 11 September - was a day of commemoration for victims of war, and for victims of the 1973 coup in Chile. A vigil was held at the fence for Lee and graffiti appeared around town: ’Lee vive!‘ alongside ’Carlo vive!‘ On Friday dozens of protesters sneaked into the Zona disguised as tourists - even the security of the WTO wasn‘t allowed to interfere with making money. Several small actions took place - street theatre, guerrilla gardening, sitdowns. About 50 activists took the road outside the conference centre and blocked traffic for four hours. Simultaneously, activists in the town took over an empty restaurant and occupied it, giving out free food to locals, playing music and creating a festive atmosphere of resistance.
For me, the most important event was the demonstration against war and free trade on the Saturday. The local press had been full of articles about outside agitators descending on Cancun and threatening violence all week. The regional president attacked ’globalifobicos‘ for bringing the town into disrepute. But on Saturday we created a fantastic atmosphere of celebration. Although many of the farmers had gone, the Korean delegation was going strong and led the demo alongside Mexican and European farmers. They were followed by thousands of students, anti-privatisation campaigners, trade unionists and anarchists. The Koreans sang and chanted throughout the march in Spanish, English and Korean. The most popular chant was ’Zapata vive! La lucha sigue!‘ (Zapata lives! Continue the struggle!). There was an anti-capitalist band called the Noise Brigade, indigenous Mexican groups and giant puppets - including the Mayan rain god, emblazoned with a sign saying, ’MAD with the WTO about water privatisation‘. By the time we got to the fence there were up to 10,000 demonstrators and we proceeded to pull a section of the fence down. The Korean farmers directed and dozens of protesters heaved on ropes to topple the welded cage-like steel structure. This symbolic act was followed by speeches from the farmers and flowers were held up in tribute to Lee.
As we were pulling down the fence, the talks were collapsing. By Sunday it was clear that the protests outside and the divisions inside the WTO had once again temporarily derailed the neoliberal project. Everyone felt that the three objectives had been met. As Barry Coates of the World Development Movement has put it, the story of Cancun 2003 is one of linked up campaigning around the world. The challenge now is to build on those links and, like we dismantled the fence, break down the system that is holding us all back.