The Real Cancun (11/10/03)

Cancun is infamous for its never-ending strip of hotels, interrupted only by bars and clubs. It has one purpose, and that is the fulfillment of every rich tourist’s desire. It is intentionally divided into several parts, and is always expanding to fit the number of settlers coming here to find jobs.

Most tourists never leave the Zona Hotelera, the long row of expensive shops, hotels, restaurants, and bars. It is designed so that no American will feel far from home, with McDonalds, KFC, Hard Rock Cafe and Margaritaville right around the corner. And for the more exotic tastes there is always the Rainforest Cafe. Through the middle of all of this runs the "street of opportunity," where one is able to acquire drugs of one’s choosing.

Going down Avenue Kukulkan, a long strip of golf courses and polluted lagoons, you come along Km. 0, the point at which the scenery begins to change. Still there are the multinationals like Pizza Hut and OfficeMax. The hotels are gone, as well as the beach and most of the gringos. Here are the markets and smaller "quainter" restaurants. Here is where the tourists would come to experience some "culture." Beyond this is unknown to them.

Not far away are the barrios that are overflowing with those without work. The myth has spread like wildfire. People have surged here in the hope of attaining success by the power of the dollar. Now, all of the positions are filled, and even with knowledge of English there is little hope of ever finding work.

Here, in these neighborhoods, there is often no fresh water or electricity, and no sewage treatment plants. The groundwater is contaminated from sewage runoff, so self-sufficiency is hopeless. Education is often ignored in the face of poverty, and drugs have become a useful response to the boredom that goes along with it.

The lagoons are becoming polluted by leakage from the hotels. The very attractions which support the infrastructure of Cancun, the beaches and the sea, are perishing under the weight of capitalism. This means that Cancun is dying, and with it goes the whole population of Cancun. Those who have built Cancun will surely go down with it, while only those who profit will escape, unharmed.

It was in Cancun, against this contradictory backdrop of luxury and poverty, that the Fifth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference was held from September 10th to 14th, 2003. It was also where activists from around the world converged with workers and farmers to bring light to the economic issues threatening their existence.

Need some background on the WTO? Click here.

Independent Media Center

One of the main reasons why we braved the tourist hell was to set up the Independent Media Center (IMC). The Independent Media Center is a vast network of independent journalists around the world who strive to produce an alternative to the corporate media coverage experienced by most of the global population. It was started during the Third WTO Ministerial in Seattle which took place in 1999, and from there it has multiplied exponentially to 120 centers around the world.

Four years later, the IMC is continuing its coverage of social and political issues surrounding neo-liberalism at the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun. In addition to the IMC in Chiapas, Mexico, the heartland of the Zapatista rebellion, Independent Media Centers have been active in south and central America in the last couple of years. IMCs have been covering the uprising initiated in Argentina against neo-liberalism in the winter of 2001 and similar struggles in countries such as Columbia, Ecuador, Brazil and Guatemala.

The Preparation

The WTO Ministerial in Cancun was an opportunity for campesinos (Mexican farmers) to confront one of the many institutions that imposed a lifestyle of poverty upon them. Demonstrators from all over the world were also coming to Cancun to voice their solidarity with the campesino struggle and show how widespread and far-reaching the economic effects of WTO policies are.

Since the Third WTO Ministerial in Seattle, which was marked by a huge wave of protests and riots, dissidents had been waiting for another chance to confront the WTO. The Fourth WTO Ministerial in 2001 was held in remote Doha, Qatar under military protection, which meant that activists could not access the meeting. Cancun, however, was a difficult but feasible location where real people could confront the businessmen and women who sought to increase free-trade.

Most protestors assume that demonstrations happen spontaneously. Housing seems to magically appear, and food is somehow provided for thousands of people. This is obviously not the case, and Cancun was an especially difficult place to organize, which emphasizes the importance of many people arriving early to pitch in their effort

Being a tourist city, Cancun was politically void of any opposition to the governing forces, and any opposition was strongly oppressed and discouraged. Also, the hotel zone, where the talks were being held, is located on a peninsula, making it easy to block off from the downtown district. There were also financial difficulties to confront. Cancun caters to rich tourists and is a very expensive place, relative to the rest of Mexico. The combination of all these factors proved to be a challenge to organizational skills, and resources were taxed.

What is always required in atmospheres of difficulty and oppression is solidarity. This is another vital reason for early presence. We needed a local opinion to help us with our work and had the good fortune to meet two young activists from Mexico City who arrived one month before the protests started. They served as a channel of communication between planners in Mexico City and activists on the ground. They also provided the desperately needed presence of Mexican organizers.

Alternative Meetings

The dissent towards the WTO kicked off during the first week of September. Media activists joined to organize the Hurukan Alternative Media and Technology Convergence, which was created to focus and coordinate coverage for the protests, as well as share information regarding alternative forms of media. Over 120 media revolutionaries gathered to plot against Clear Channel and other media giants, and workshops such as radio building and Internet streaming were conducted, which later resulted in coverage of the protests through a variety of media. The Convergence connected social movements from the south with the media activists from the north and provided the groundwork for the Cancun Independent Media Center.

In addition to media activists, fisherman, unions, campesinos, indigenous organizations, Zapatista university students and anarchist punks were formulating their strategies against globalization before the WTO Ministerial. All of these groups had their alternative forums and intellectual gatherings to discuss the problems with globalization and the best strategies to start moving the wheel of change.

The forums brought together many of the top writers and thinkers on the issue of globalization with the people who are directly harmed by its effects. While some organizations decided to have their forums inside of the Zona Hotelera, most decided to have their alternative forum outside so that it could be attended by the general public without the hindrance of security forces. In fact, the Mexican government did make attempts to stop the meetings of the International Forum on Globalization, which was taking place inside the security parameter.

Throughout the events there was an unspoken agreement among the thousands who had arrived in Cancun that the clock was ticking towards the beginning of the WTO meetings and the start of street actions. While there was a well-attended student march on September 9th, the real kickoff came with the campesino-initiated march on September 10, the first day of the Ministerial.

Rage at the Barricades

The end of the Campesino Forum, put forth by the largest farmers’ organization in the world, Via Campesina, brought the beginning of the street actions. Thousands of farmers and their supporters marched in unison from Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture), where the Campesino Forum took place and where the students and the farmers set up their encampments during the demonstrations. The tone of militancy, commitment and sacrifice was present in every chant that came from the massive crowd. "Zapata VIVE VIVE!" (Long Live Zapata!) shouted someone in the crowd and the franchise-ridden streets of Cancun answered, "La Lucha SIGUE SIGUE!" (The struggle goes on).

Of all of the diverse groups that came out to protest on this arid September day, the most intriguing were undoubtedly the 180 farmers from South Korean organizations and unions. As the march came 100 feet from the metal barriers separating the public from the WTO Ministerial, the Korean contingent left the main march and moved to the head, directly in front of the barricades. Immediately the barricade was scaled and two Koreans stood on top of it triumphantly. One of them was wearing a plaid shirt with a sign over his neck which read, "WTO kills Farmers." This man lead the crowd in a chant as he repeated "WTO Kills Farmers!" three times. Moments after this, still on the barricades, he pulled out his knife and stabbed himself directly in the heart, falling into the crowd beneath him.

Not fully comprehending the dramatic event that had just occurred, the crowd continued its relentless attack on the barricade and the police who were standing behind them. Members of Via Campesina tore behind the barricades and attacked the police officers’ plexiglas shields. Eventually the fence had a gaping hole, leaving a line of the police exposed. The militants continued on, with the Korean contingent in the lead. They attacked the police with anything in hand, from rocks to metal poles to karate kicks.

After an hour of this it was realized that even if this line of police was beaten here at Km. 0, there was no possibility of making it to the convention center, past the eight checkpoints on the way. The symbolic destruction of the fence was ended as the news of Lee Kyung-Hae’s death was being whispered amongst the crowd.

The Korean delegation was just as shocked at Lee’s final act of desperation as were the thousands attending the protest. Lee Kyung-Hae had been on a relentless struggle against the WTO after farm subsidies awarded by rich governments ruined his rice patties and his family’s subsistence. He had gone on a hunger strike at the front steps of the 1998 WTO Ministerial in Geneva and issued a press statement to bring meaning to his actions.

After his suicide in Cancun, the elite of the WTO refused to acknowledge the significance of this action and presented this as a non-event. Instead they should have read his words from Geneva:

"I am 56 years old, a farmer from South Korea who has strived to solve our problems ourselves with a great hope in farmer’s unions, but I have mostly failed as have many other farm leaders elsewhere.

Soon after the Uruguay Round (UR) Agreement was settled, we Korean farmers realized that our destinies are already out of our hands. Further, so powerlessly of ourselves, we could not do anything but watch the waves destroy our lovely rural communities that had been settled over the hundred years. To make myself brave, I have searched for the real reasons and major forces of those waves. Reaching to my conclusion now here in Geneva, at the front gate of the WTO, I am crying out my words to you that have boiled so long in my body.

My warning goes to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation that uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO official members are leading a globalization of inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing and undemocratic policies. It should be stopped immediately, otherwise the false logic of neo-liberalism will kill the diversity of global agriculture with disastrous consequences to all human beings."

Mexican Students

Mexican students (a majority of them from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) showed a strong commitment to powerful resistance against the WTO’s policies. They were instrumental in bringing the fence down on the first day of the Ministerial and later on teamed up with foreign activists to organize an invasion of the convention center. On the third day of the Ministerial, hundreds of people leaked into the hotel zone in cabs and on public buses. Everyone was able to fool the various checkpoints along the way under the cover of being tourists.

Just as the delegates were coming out of the meetings and returning to their hotels and restaurants, dozens of activists jumped into the streets and blocked both directions in the only road in the hotel zone, completely shutting down the tourist center. Ultimately, through negotiation, an agreement was reached with the police and two buses were brought to shuttle the activists back to Km. 0, where there was an ongoing vigil and encampment commemorating Lee’s life.

The bus ride turned into an incredible opportunity for all of the blockade participants as they rode on top of the bus, chanting throughout the Hotel Zone on their way out. The determination of the students was inspiring for everyone there, especially the youth from other countries, including hundreds of young activists from the US.


In addition to alternative forums and street action, protesters also found ways to show their dissent through the use of media. The week of the WTO Ministerial proved how well-prepared people were for thorough alternative coverage. Journalists, photographers, and videographers were everywhere, with little room it seemed, for the protestors. This allowed for a lot of cooperative work and networking for future coverage of ideas and events. It also resulted in projects such as "Km. 0," the documentary that was spit out in two days after the demonstrations. There were also other projects, such as a film festival showing "The Fourth World War," a recent film from Big Noise. Another result was Radio Hurukan, an FM radio station that was set-up as a result of the media convergence.

NGOs Realize the Power of Action

According to David Martinez, filmmaker and writer from Texas, one thing that became clear in Cancun is that the non-government organizations (NGOs) were following in the footsteps of those in the street. This was demonstrated by the number of spontaneous actions and disruptions by NGOs of the WTO meetings. In one instance, the environmental organization, Greenpeace, poured kernels of Mexican corn on the table where the US government was having its press conference to protest the destruction of Mexican corn. In another instance a vigil was organized for Lee, within the walls of the WTO.

We also witnessed what was probably the most visible expression of dissent within the NGO wing of the participants when the meetings came to a collapse on the last day of the Ministerial. As the US Trade Representative’s Press Meeting was coming to an end, a woman from the back of the briefing room yelled out, "There are some delegates outside who are saying that they are pulling out, can you comment on this?"

US Trade Representative deputy Josette Sheeran Shiner replied, "I will go outside and see what is happening." When she went out she was greeted by massive commotion on the floor. Multiple representatives from developing nations were holding press conferences and announcing that they were pulling out of the negotiations. This was the culmination of a bitter struggle between the Group of 21 (G-21) countries and the US and European Union over agriculture and issues relating to investment.

While the G-21 countries were making their dramatic pullout, those in solidarity with these poorer nations were flooding the main hall of the convention center. Some were singing songs against US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and others were embracing each other with teary eyes.

The Future of the Movement and the End of Neo-liberalism

The Cancun Ministerial was one with extreme expectations and, ultimately, extreme implications for both sides of the issue. There was a clear victory on the side of the thousands in the street. Cancun will become an energizing factor to the counter-globalization movement.

Those affected by the horrors of free trade demonstrated that they are still ready to put up forceful resistance to corporate globalization in defense of working people and the planet. The purveyors of free trade are now faced by organized resistance on the part of the developing nations. A majority of these nations that said no to the bullies of the WTO are from south and central America and the Caribbean (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala).

This presents an interesting challenge at the upcoming negotiations of the Free Trade Area of The Americas (FTAA) in Miami during the third week of November. Both to activists and neo-liberals, the FTAA negotiations in Miami represent the next round in the free trade agenda. The countdown has begun, the CEOs are in a panic and the counter-globalization force in the US is preparing for its biggest surprise since Seattle.

Ali Tonak graduated from Bard College after studying molecular biology. He is currently employed as a construction worker. Tessa Brudevold-Iversen recently graduated from Bard College, where she studied ecopsychology. She currently lives in San Fransisco and loves to ride her bike, sleep, and cook/eat vegan food.