‘Globalphobics’ at the barricades
Taking on the WTO in Cancún is no spring break for Californians joining international protests against corporate globalization
For each chunk of red-metal barricade thrown into the Mexican jungle by women and men from all over the world, the heat seemed to intensify. Drums beat faster. A woman sang at a higher pitch. Clouds darkened.
Women from South Africa, Mexico and the United States worked with wire cutters to dismantle layer after layer of barricade. Behind were thousands of protesters, some armed with sticks, others with shopping carts (liberated from the Cancún Wal-Mart) full of rocks, bottles and other handy projectiles. Some held a rope to pull the barricade down. Some played musical instruments. Some sat in palm trees reporting on the event for independent media outlets around the globe.
Evan Tucker, 21, of Sacramento, yelled approval as each piece of fence was removed. His dark curly hair was damp from the oppressive humidity, as was his faded red T-shirt. It said: “Drop out. Rise up.” A red bandanna around his neck was lined with a small surgical face mask in case the police decided to use tear gas to break up the crowd.
Tucker knows about protests. He was one of the 10 activists arrested last June in downtown Sacramento at the Ron Mandella Community Garden during the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology. The activists chained themselves around an apricot tree. Police came in helicopters and sawed apart the lockboxes that were holding them together. They were arrested. Tucker spent three days in jail.
Before coming to Cancún, Tucker decided he wasn’t going to risk arrest by Mexican police.
Battering rams, one made from a telephone pole and the other a sodden log from the jungle, appeared then disappeared from the Front, or Ground Zero, or whatever you called this huge roadblock. The steel barricade kept the thousands from marching far up the road to the convention center in Cancún, at the eastern edge of the Yucután Peninsula, where representatives from 148 nations were debating the details of free-trade agreements behind closed doors.
This secrecy, this lack of transparency, is one of many issues the protesters have with the World Trade Organization.
Bienvenido a Cancún. It was Saturday, Sept. 13, the next-to-last day of the World Trade Organization’s Sept. 10-14 Ministerial. The protesters’ greatest hope was that the conference would fail, and they were doing everything they could to help that happen.
Remember 1999 in Seattle? Riots? Police brutality? Protests that shut down world trade negotiations?
Cancún’s not quite like that.
To recap: Critics say that, while it may be possible to create some sort of fair-trade system—a democratic, equitable, transparent and ecological, sustainable world economy—the WTO isn’t even close.
Though the World Bank has estimated that a trade pact between nations could add something like $520 billion to the global economy by 2015 and bring 144 million people out of poverty, globalization foes note that, so far, increased global trade has led only to an expanding gap between rich and poor.
“If globalization was going to help the poor, the last 20 years of very rapid globalization should have made everyone rich by now,” states a report prepared by the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization. “But, as globalization accelerates, the benefits are not trickling down to the poor, but up—to the wealthiest people on earth.”
In Cancún, international anti-globalization activists were dubbed “globalfóbicos"—"globalphobics"—by local media. The term aptly described the activists’ fears that rules dictated by giant, multinational corporations would spell continuing disasters for the world’s poor, for the average working Josà and others not among the tiny percentage of rich who are getting richer.
In their turn, though, the activists frightened the local people, some of the very people they meant to support through their protests.
“They are on fire,” said a local hotel worker of the protesters. “We are very scary.”
She meant “scared.”
The geography of the coastal area—a long peninsula that connects to land on both ends and encloses a picturesque blue lagoon—couldn’t have been better suited to security purposes. Activists couldn’t get more than a couple dozen protesters within six or seven kilometers of the convention center. They couldn’t get past the barricade that kept the excluded from getting the attention of the included, that protected the haves from an uprising of some desperate have-nothing-lefts.
And even if the protesters had gotten through the fence, they’d have confronted something like 5,000 policemen: locals, hired hands and officers of the Mexican federal police. Truckloads of cops patrolled the city. There were checkpoints everywhere, and vehicles going into the hotel zone, or zona hotelería, were stopped and searched.
Off the coast, silhouettes of battleships were visible not far from shore, near the Isla Mujeres. A person might get the idea that these protesters were armed with something more than chain store shopping carts filled with rocks and sticks, some handmade banners and plenty of spray paint.
Maybe. A downtown Pizza Hut window was smashed early in the week. By mid-week, many businesses were using plywood to protect their storefronts.
The WTO meetings for delegates, staff and accredited members of non-governmental organizations took place in Cancún’s hotel zone, a strip of high-rise, high-end motels built for affluent, mostly non-Mexican tourists. Between the white-sand beaches and immaculate golf courses are shopping centers and malls. Subway, McDonald’s and the Outback Steakhouse. Planet Hollywood. The Tycoon Store.
There are only two ways onto the single road that snakes among the beach resorts. Only one could be reached by protesters marching on foot in a single day. And that was blocked by cops and a tall red fence.
“They chose this strategy: barricades, tanks, battleships,” said Lesley Adams, 26, of Ashland, Ore. “They’re protecting their castle. And people are getting pissed.”
Though WTO talks are not held openly, Adams followed this round’s goings-on closely.
“The Third World is trying its best not to be bullied. [The WTO] is falling apart on the inside, and we on the outside support that.”
In fact, by opening day of the ministerial, several developing nations, including many Latin American and Asian countries, agreed to unite in demands for fair-trade policies. By Sunday, the rebel group had grown to more than 20 nations and was calling itself the G-21, a nod to and a thumb of the nose at the powerful G-8 superpowers from the United States and Europe.
That was all that activists, who’d been planning trips to Cancún for months, could have asked for. They’d flown here from South Korea and Switzerland and Africa. They’d hitchhiked down from Canada. One van carrying more than 20 computers to be used for an IndyMedia Cancún Web site was stopped en route. The computers were confiscated. More were donated.
Early in the week, activists from Food Not Bombs passed out a free meal in front of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Others stripped down and spelled out the words “No WTO” in the sand. Nudity sells. The media showed up.
But still, stories weren’t making the front pages of newspapers. Acts of protest went unnoticed. Busloads of Mexican students and farmers, campesinos (10,000 by some accounts), arrived in town Tuesday and marched through the city to the blockade in front of the hotel zone. A few protesters broke apart cement blocks and threw them at the police, who responded by throwing the cement chunks back at protesters.
Even the most devastating moment of the protests, the suicide of a South Korean farmer, ended up buried on the back pages of many faraway newspapers.
He was Lee Kyung Hae, and he was 56 years old. On the first day of the WTO talks, he stabbed himself to death, in an act resembling hara-kiri, atop the very barricade that activists later would attempt to dismantle.
Lee left a suicide note for members of the South Korean delegation to the WTO, asking them to take a stand against the WTO’s support of corporate globalization. In the note, he described the changes in his community: “Farmers who gave up early have gone to urban slums. Others who have tried to escape from the vicious cycle have met bankruptcy due to accumulated debts. For me, I couldn’t do anything but just look around at the vacant houses, old and eroding. Once I went to a house where a farmer abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife.”
Protesters spray painted “Lee vive!” on signs and walls during the march.
And, indeed, Lee did live during the conference, in spirit if not in body. For the issue that drove him to suicide—massive subsidies to American and European farmers that make farmers in developing countries unable to compete and are driving them from the land—was ultimately the very issue on which the success or failure of the conference would hinge.
“That man felt like taking his life was something he needed to do to reach a group that doesn’t allow him to participate,” Lesley Adams said. “Honestly, when I came down here, I was emotionally prepared to have the police kill one of us. Someone committing suicide was not an idea I had in my head.”
She understood what Lee was trying to accomplish.
“It’s because of the system,” she said. “He was just trying to make it real, but the media here are glossing over it. … People die every day from our country’s domination and oppression. It’s shocking.”
From the outside, the IndyMedia Cancún office didn’t look like the home of a sophisticated computer network where independent media activists put out a Web site that was getting heavy traffic. There were more than 10,000 hits on most days last week.
There was a brown cardboard sign for Comida No Bombas on a cyclone fence around the yard. The windows were covered. Two Mexican students guarded the entrance.
Before noon on Friday, an activist called Almond popped into IndyMedia Cancún with a story. Almond is a Northern California tree-sitter affiliated with Earth First! and other environmental groups that save tall leafy things from companies that turn trees into boards and sawdust.
That morning, he said, several activists had infiltrated the hotel zone for covert ops. He reported this news to Soña Angelica, an activist with IndyMedia Tucson.
“We just got the front page of every newspaper in the world!” he said. (This turned out not to be true, but the event did draw many photographers.)
At 2 a.m., he and others had left downtown with barely enough money for a cab. Using donated climbing gear, the group ascended to the top of an unfinished high-rise across from the conference center. There, they hung a huge banner—about 50 feet wide and 30 feet tall, Almond said—on which they’d painted a Spanish slogan that translates to “Get them all out!”
“And they’re going to have to let it hang there,” he said. “They can’t get it down.”
Other actions Friday: A group of protesters blocked the street in front of the convention center for at least a half-hour, by some accounts, before the police arrived.
A half-hour later, at the Hard Rock Cafà, something was up. I ran into David Barbour, 56, a computer programmer from Richmond, Calif.
I’d met Barbour earlier at the Convergence Center, next door to IndyMedia Cancún and a central hangout for activists from every group. It was also a great place for artists who use the space to work on their huge, angry Mayan god puppets for Saturday’s massive march.
Barbour considers himself a kind of reawakened activist.
“I’ve been a liberal all my life,” he said. “But because of all the stupid things that Bush has done, I’ve become much more political.”
He’s worked with California Peace Action, and he’s helped introduce anti-USA Patriot Act resolutions locally. He enjoys his job as a computer programmer, he said, but all is not right in his world.
“I find myself angry and afraid most of the time,” he said. “And the only way I can deal with that is to be politically active. They are creating a world in which I don’t want to live.”
Barbour introduced me to Skip, who pulled me out into the street to whisper a tip about an upcoming action at precisely 3 p.m.
“We don’t want any journalists getting there early,” warned Skip, taking my business card.
“So are these guys risking arrest?”
Skip nodded gravely.
Sure enough, at 3 p.m., a dozen protesters arrived and got down on their knees to eulogize public services. Each carried a cardboard sign shaped like a gravestone: “RIP health care, RIP public schools,” etc. A large banner promised that “A better world is possible.”
The police arrived and let the protesters finish reading remarks from the gravestones. They smiled patiently as the group sang, “The earth is not for sale,” to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.”
They finished. The police collected the signs and banners. The protesters spoke with reporters from Fox News.
Barbour watched the proceedings from a bit of a distance.
“I’m just here to be undercounted,” he said, smiling.
Finally Saturday. Time to be a bit more confrontational. Time for a huge march, a grand show of force.
At the Parque de Palapas, where activists camped out under giant tarps, the Zapatistas, anti-imperialists, anarchists and Maoists (among others) prepared to march to join more groups. There had been meetings and discussions—seemingly interminable talks—and the consensus was to bring shopping carts full of projectiles on the march to Ground Zero, Cancún.
Two taxis drove up and unloaded activists wearing matching shirts: “Africa is not for sale.” One man began beating a bongo. Across the parking lot, an older Mexican man began a folk song while strumming his guitar. A whistle blew.
Camping in the park with the anti-imperialists were Aaron Buskirk and Dan Gingold, 24, who both traveled to Cancún from Nevada. Gingold has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American studies and speaks Spanish like a native. Gingold spent a year in Spain as well as a good many more months in Mexico. He spent several weeks living with Zapatistas on a community farm.
Gingold gave some thought to the question of whether violent force on the part of protesters would be justified. He seemed fairly undecided. In the end, he said violence might be the only way to finally get the kind of media attention the activists sought.
“That’s the postmodern protest dilemma,” he said later as we walked with protesters to Ground Zero. “You’re a protester, but in a way you’re also—I don’t want to say pandering—but you are in a way. That has a strange air to it.”
Not far from Ground Zero, we heard the Infernal Noise Brigade practicing alongside the road. Members dressed in matching black uniforms with orange stripes and pointed black hats played a polished, jazzy marching tune. Flag girls in front. Horns. Drums. Bringing up the rear, a girl with a metal cash box strapped behind her added a sample of screeching, roaring, industrial, metallic, clanging “infernal noise.”
The march came to a halt, where a group of women linked arms across the road. As the women gathered, blocking the rest of the parade, long ropes were draped in the middle of the road. The barricades would be cut, then pulled away with the ropes.
Buskirk considered arming himself with a stick from the jungle alongside the road.
“I’m not planning on hitting anyone,” he said. “It’s just for protection.”
“I don’t know, man,” Gingold replied. “The ones with the sticks will be the ones they go after first.”
The women marched forward first, chanting: “Women as slaves, never again.”
They climbed the fence and the dismantling began.
After wire-cutters freed a section of fence, others climbed the barricade to attach ropes. Then hundreds grabbed a knot on two ropes and start pulling. Supporters packed along the sides of the street cheered.
It took almost two hours to cut through the layers of heavy-duty reinforced-steel cyclone fence barricade.
A group of South African women who’d been inside the “cage"—between layers of barricade—took a break and noted my taking of notes.
“Don’t forget to write that ‘Africa is not for sale,'” said Donna Andrews, 28, as she panted in the shade of a palm tree. Andrews, with the African People’s Caucus, said cutting the barricade was a meaningful act in itself.
“The symbolism of hacking the gate is that the WTO must go. It’s undemocratic.” she said.
In South Africa, trade liberalization hit the working class hard, she said, as tariffs failed to discourage foreign imports or goods often created with the help of huge government subsidies on behalf of, say, the United States or Europe. This kind of subsidy makes it nearly impossible for domestic companies to put out a competitive product. That puts South African companies out of business.
“Working-class women are losing jobs,” Andrews said. In addition, the country sorely needs to be able to manufacture its own drugs to fight an epidemic of AIDS. Andrews doesn’t think the WTO’s much-publicized pharmaceutical maneuvering will help that situation.
“We will be unable to produce essential drugs,” she said.
And it’s not like working-class women or AIDS patients will ever have a way to appeal to the WTO, an inaccessible, non-elected instrument of corporate globalization.
“Africa is a place for them to make money while we are dying,” she said.
The last of the gate came down, and many were ready to rush into the waiting rows of policía. Someone started a chant of “Lee! Lee! Lee!” Finally, the last of the barricade was pulled away. The road was open. The police were waiting.
There were shouts of “Guerra!”
But there was no rush to the gate. Instead, calm descended. A voice from the front declared: “Today’s action is over.”
Protesters were invited to sit down while a group of Korean activists come forward to honor the memory of Lee Kyung Hae with speeches and flowers.
“Today we have shown the power we have when we are united,” said a speaker.
The crowd cheered.
A few disappointed activists began harvesting the metal barricades from the jungle’s edge.
Buskirk ripped duct tape from his cardboard arm guard.
“Why did they have to pull the fence down if they’re not going to go in?” he asked his friend.
“It’s symbolism,” Gingold answered.
As we walked back to downtown Cancún, we saw what kept so many guys busy during the speeches. They’d erected a new blockade along another street using the leftover chunks of red barricade, sticks, leaves and banners. A row of federales stood about 50 feet behind this new barrier.
“I think it’s over,” Gingold said.
“What are they going to do now?” someone asked.
“I think they’ll all fall asleep,” said a guy from Sweden.
“Tomorrow, everyone’s going to take down their tents and go home,” Gingold said.
By the ministerial’s end on Sunday, it was clear to most that the WTO’s Cancún talks had failed. The G-22 walked out on the meetings, citing unsatisfactory offers on behalf of wealthy nations that refused, most important, to stop subsidizing agricultural industries to the detriment of farm owners and laborers abroad. One specific target of the G-21 is the more than $330 billion in agricultural subsidies that comes from countries of the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development, specifically Japan, the United States and the members of the European Union.
A South African media source called the conference “doomed” but added that the G-21 bloc of developing countries had found power in “flexing its newfound muscles.”
The message so important to the globalphobics—the ideal on which Lee Hae spent his life—was finally reaching the people who needed to hear it.
The slogan chanted all day Saturday hung in the air: "The people united will never be defeated."