Victory in Cancun

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The following is a dispatch from Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco-based activist and author. It was initially submitted to, a web log of The Nation Institute.

Last Tuesday, September 9, 300-400 activists marched to the Chevron-Texaco refinery in Richmond, California, one of thousands of actions around the world in opposition to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as its fifth ministerial opened in Cancun, Mexico. Richmond isn’t how most people picture the San Francisco Bay Area: it’s a poor, mostly nonwhite community whose citizens are periodically confined to their houses or sent to the hospital by fumes leaking from the refinery. Because Chevron-Texaco is refining Iraqi oil, the demonstration let us address at once local environmental-justice issues, the ongoing war in Iraq, and corporate pillage.

As Naomi Klein pointed out in a recent Nation column, (Free Trade Is War):

“After September 11, right-wing pundits couldn’t bury the globalization movement fast enough. We were gleefully informed that in times of war, no one would care about frivolous issues like water privatization. Much of the US antiwar movement fell into a related trap: Now was not the time to focus on divisive economic debates, it was time to come together to call for peace. All this nonsense ends in Cancun this week, when thousands of activists converge to declare that the brutal economic model advanced by the World Trade Organization is itself a form of war.”

And the war on Iraq is also just a form of colonization and resource capture for corporate benefit. The profits from Iraqi oil, should they ever materialize, would go to the ‘rebuilding of Iraq’–a.k.a. to Halliburton and Bechtel. The march included community members and community activists, three Catholic priests, white-haired peace activists, environmentalists and a lot of young radicals connected to Direct Action to Stop War, which orchestrated the 20,000-person shutdown of San Francisco’s financial district when the bombing began in Iraq last March and called this action. We paraded to the gates where the trucks take away the Iraqi oil and found that dozens of police in full riot gear had already blockaded the place for us. The twenty-two of us who were willing to be arrested turned our backs on them, linked arms, and sat down.

Ahead of us in the east as day became night the full moon rose from a bank of glowing clouds into a clear sky. Whenever I turned, I saw that the ranks of cops were growing–eventually there were a hundred of them at our backs, armed with clubs, canister rifles that shoot tear-gas, beanbags, or various other ‘sub-lethal’ devices that can cause blindness, broken bones, severe wounds and even death. Kids wearing the bandannas over their faces that signify identifying as “black block”–as the anarchists who’ve gotten such an outrageous reputation for property destruction at demonstrations since the Seattle WTO in 1999–walked down the line, tenderly kneeling and offering to feed us blockaders from plates of rice and beans. There was something moving about that demonstration, something that seemed in a small way to prefigure the epochal events in Cancun that would unfold in the days that followed.

The unlikely breadth of our coalition was already a small victory, as were the few hours we kept the Iraqi oil from going to market. We had turned our backs on violence and authority and made our own peace under the open summer sky of that grim industrial landscape. Though the over-armed cops looked like so many Darth Vader variations, they never moved on us, and after two hours of sitting still we declared victory and walked away free. In Cancun, the victory would be huge.

The World Trade Organization sometimes seems to me to be instating capitalism and free trade as a religion, one in which the sacred right of corporate capital to penetrate every corner of the globe must be enforced by removing national boundaries, environmental protections, labor standards, local jurisdiction and everything else in the way. The WTO exists to impose this capital apotheosis, and its assertion that this will benefit anything other than multinational corporations is an article of faith blatantly contradicted by the evidence on the ground.

Corporate globalization is degrading life everywhere — from this country where “the race to the bottom” exports manufacturing jobs to places where wages are measured in pennies or where industrialized agricultural products undermine the ability of small-scale farmers to make a living (an economic disparity enhanced by the $300 billion in subsidies the developed world supplies to its agriculture). Removing barriers is often transparently a one-way street in the WTO. Small farmers mean rural community, continuity, sustainability–the kind of thing the WTO can’t measure as profit. Given its way, the WTO would suspend the ability of communities and countries to protect their ecologies and economies. The WTO can rule that local environmental protections–of air quality, of endangered species–are barriers to free trade that must be removed. In its essence, the organization is an attempt to extirpate democracy globally, and in the eight years of its existence it has been hotly–and effectively–opposed by activists and many impoverished nations, never more so than in Cancun last week.

Many of us expected the WTO ministerial in Cancun to fail, but it has failed more gloriously than anyone foresaw. The WTO has been staggering since Seattle, and now it’s collapsed — a huge victory for those who would’ve been crushed underfoot and who were there to fight it. There were two huge developments in Cancun. One was the formation of the Group of 22, the developing-world alliance of 22 nations, led by Brazil, India and China, which represent more than half the world’s people and about 80% of its farmers, a group strong enough to stand up to the developed world. The other was a new kind of solidarity between activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and developing nations, a solidarity that generated a new power to face off against the developed nations and their financial institutions and corporations. In earlier WTO ministerials, representatives of developed nations were good at dividing and pressuring developing-nation representatives to cave in, but the Group of 22, assembled by Brazil, represents a profound shift in power and sophistication. At about 3:30 p.m. Sunday, the last day of the Cancun ministerial, the Kenyan representative of the Group of 22 said, “The meeting is over. This is another Seattle,” and walked out. With that the talks collapsed. The developing-nation delegates immediately began holding press conferences while NGO representatives and activists went wild with joy.

Defiance had been present from the beginning. On the first day of the meeting, September 10, US activist Stephen Bartlett wrote his friends:

“About the same time that our great campesino march was taking place, inside the WTO another act of rebellion was taking place at the opening speech of the president of the WTO, Supachai of Thailand. In the middle of his speech, dozens of NGO delegates stood up, some with tape over their mouths, all holding signs, and faced the front of the room. Walden Bello of the Philippines, Anuradha Mittal of Food First and many others from US and European and other NGOs with the required WTO accreditation had helped organize this action. Their signs read ‘WTO Undemocratic,’ ‘WTO Anti-Development,’ ‘WTO Obsolete.’ After a moment, they began chanting: Shame, shame, shame, shame… Some in the media, turning to film them and interrupting the speech of Supachai, shouted out questions to the protesters, and when they were escorted out, they followed out too for interviews, entirely disrupting the opening speech.”

In another e-mail to friends, Bay Area activist Antonia Juhasz frames the reason for the collapse:

“The EU announced that it would ‘bundle’ the agriculture and ‘new issues’ (investment is the most important of these). This means that for anything to move forward on agriculture, the new issues would also have to be discussed. The developing countries strongly oppose discussion of new issues while there are still so many problems with the current agreements — particularly agriculture. They said that this is supposed to be a ‘development round,’ not a round about new issues. Investment rules are good for corporations in the EU and US, but not for anyone else. They reject the negotiations because corporate interests have been placed above development interests. The negotiations could only have created more hardship, more desperation, more poverty, more inequality. It was better to walk out of the negotiations then to have them proceed and create a worse situation than that which currently exists.”

Juhasz additionally reports:

“A woman from Swaziland turned to a colleague of mine and told him that the African countries could not have stood firm against the WTO, the US and the EU if had not been for the activists in and outside of the convention hall. She said that our actions in and outside, our words, our pressure – particularly as they reached the press – gave her and her fellow African nations the strength to take this historic stand.”

Nicole Itano of the Christian Science Monitor considered these new alliances in writing (At global trade summit, strange new bedfellows):

“Smaller countries at the summit are increasingly working with protest groups to get a fair shake from the world’s global trade giants – much the way black South Africans looked to international activists to help overthrow apartheid. This week, the Group of 21 developing nations, which includes China, Brazil, and India, announced an alliance with Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization based in Oxford, England. The alliance was billed as a bid to unite antiglobalization opponents with developing nations.”

After solidarity actions around the world on September 9, demonstrations at Cancun by thousands of activists began on Wednesday, the 10th and immediately took an unexpected turn. Lee Kyung-hae, a Korean farmer wearing a sandwich board that said, “The WTO kills farmers,” and marching with a large contingent of Korean farmers, arrived at one of the barricades and climbed atop it, where he stabbed himself in the heart. His suicide lent a somber note to the actions, by all reports, but also underscored the desperate importance of what was at stake, spurring on rejection of the WTO accords. Lee had been a farmer who received a rural-leadership award from the UN in 1988, a few years before South Korea opened its borders to the cheap Australian beef that bankrupted him and made him a more radical rural leader and anti-globalization activist.

Earlier, Lee had said that as globalization opened his country’s borders:

“….We Korean farmers realized that our destinies are no longer in our own hands. We cannot seem to do anything to stop the waves that have destroyed our communities where we have been settled for hundreds of years. To make myself brave, I have tried to find the real reason and the force behind those waves. And I reached the conclusion, here in front of the gates of the WTO. I am crying out my words to you, that have for so long boiled in my body…. My warning goes out to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation. That uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO Members are leading an undesirable globalization that is inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing, and undemocratic. It should be stopped immediately. Otherwise the false logic of neoliberalism will wipe out the diversity of global agriculture and be disastrous to all human beings.”

The Cancun activists made Mr. Lee the presiding spirit of their demonstrations, chanting:

Todos somos Lee! We are all Lee!

Lee, hermano, te has hecho Mexicano! Lee, our brother, you have made yourself Mexican.

The direct actions from Wednesday through Sunday were extraordinary, by all accounts, for their discipline, clear message, general peacefulness in the face of provocation, and creativity–and in turn, the Mexican police were startlingly nonviolent. The media likes to portray the anti-WTO “globophobes” as a bunch of bratty white kids, but the actions in Mexico were led by Mexican campesinos and included huge contingents from the developing world. Subcommandante Marcos sent a message demanding the globalization of hope rather than death.

One of the ironies of corporate globalization is that while it preaches opening borders, its representatives are unable to meet without erecting militarized zones with walls and guards to keep the public out. As Peter Rosset, codirector of the food, agriculture, and rights organization Food First, wrote of the Saturday action at one of the peripheries made of ten-foot cubes of heavy wire-fencing filled with cement blocks (WTO Derailed at ‘Second Seattle’):

“….Everyone feared the worst sort of confrontation on Saturday, and the police brought in massive reinforcements. They tripled the size of the metal barriers, and the provocateurs showed up in greater numbers, with shopping carts filled with stones and huge metal bars. But the diverse sectors of legitimate protestors came together in an amazing plan that produced the most beautiful, moving and symbolic protest imaginable, so powerful that we were all sure we had reached and passed the turning point vis-ˆ-vis the WTO.

“Just when large-scale violence most seemed likely to erupt, the collective ‘we’ created a show of unity and power that left even paid rock-throwers with no recourse but to stand down. All day and night Friday the Via Campesina and the Korean delegation led and/or participated in numerous internal and external meetings, using the moral authority of the farmer/indigenous peoples’ cause and the sacrifice of Mr. Lee to forge a collective unity with students, black blocks, trade unions, NGOs, you name it. Saturday showed our strength when we work together.

“With the black blocks providing security from the provocateurs, and cordoning off the first 10 meters in front of the wire walls, more than a hundred women went forward with bolt cutters and began dismantling the walls, bit by bit. What a diversity of women it was! Indigenous women, punks, students, old women, young women, Mexican women, American and European women, African women. Once the wall was weakened, the Koreans supervised the attachment of 50 meter long, 4 inch circumference ropes to the top of the walls. Then thousands of people of all nations, races and cultures, punks, black blocks, peasants, etc., together pulled the walls down. Quite literally, the power of the people, united, pulled down the walls of the WTO.

“When the walls finally fell, there stood thousands of riot police clearly spoiling for a fight, big time. Just when they thought we would attack them, however, the Koreans who were on the front line turned their backs on them, everyone else sat down, hundreds of flowers appeared, and we had a mass memorial service for Mr. Lee. Marcial of the MST [the 1.5-million-member Landless Peasant Movement of Brazil] then sang John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ for the crowd, the WTO was burned in effigy, and we got up and marched away. The police were left with their mouths hanging open in shock, with nobody to fight with. The hundreds of journalists who were present marveled at our collective ability to do the unexpected, to turn promised violence into moving peace, and to make a statement so powerful that the WTO could not hope to resist.”

As columnist George Monbiot writes in the Guardian (A Threat to the Rich):

“At Cancun the weak nations stood up to the most powerful negotiators on earth and were not broken. The lesson they will bring home is that if this is possible, almost anything is. Suddenly the proposals for global justice that relied on solidarity for their implementation can spring nto life. While the WTO might have been buried, these nations may, if they use their collective power intelligently, still find a way of negotiating together. They might even disinter it as the democratic body it was always supposed to have been.

“The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had better watch their backs now. The UN Security Council will find its anomalous powers ever harder to sustain. Poor nations, if they stick together, can begin to exercise a collective threat to the rich. For this, they need leverage and, in the form of their debts, they possess it. Together they owe so much that, in effect, they own the world’s financial systems. By threatening, collectively, to default, they can begin to wield the sort of power that only the rich have so far exercised, demanding concessions in return for withholding force.”

Monbiot might have added that the developing nations found their power in coalition with the NGOs and with inspiration and pressure from the activists who pulled down the walls around the WTO. Tom Hayden got that right when he wrote (Cancun Files: As Empire Falls, Protesters Celebrate):

“Derailment here today of the Cancun WTO Ministerial caused gloom in the hotel suites at the convention center – and dancing in the streets. It was the biggest triumph for anti-WTO critics since Seattle four years ago, and marked the emergence of a permanent new power bloc of once-powerless nations defending the rights of hundreds of millions of small farmers. In particular, it was a victory for the ‘Our World Is Not for Sale’ network of global activists who called for the ‘derailment’ of the WTO process months ago when few believed that to be possible.”

It’s important to recognize that this is two victories in one: a victory against them –against the imposition of deadly economic policies on the most vulnerable communities and ecologies of the earth, like the 1999 victory against the WTO in Seattle. And something Seattle didn’t quite achieve, though it laid the groundwork — a victory for us together, a growth in the power of activists on the ground and NGOs to influence and work with governments. As with the great peace marches of last winter or Seattle in 1999, the anti-corporate-globalization activists represent an extraordinary array of people come together in mutual trust, in peace, in nonviolent populist power and to a significant extent, via the Internet, which has revolutionized organizing in the past several years, making global simultaneous actions, broad coalitions, and fast-moving alternative media and communication possible. (Indymedia Cancun, one of more than a hundred offspring of the Indymedia founded for Seattle in ’99, has been one of the best sources of information for this dispatch.)

We won. For now. Because global trade talks have failed, the US will turn to regional trade talks — notably to the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations in Miami in mid-December. And the activists will be there too, in force.


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