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Budding Democracy Made Trade Talks Collapse
Published on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 by Long Island (NY) Newsday
by Victor Tan Chen

Somehow, the protesters had gotten in. When they slipped through the police-manned barricades on one end of Cancun's hotel zone, they must have seemed like just another bunch of tourists - split into small groups, their bandannas and piercings discreetly tucked away.

But instead of heading for the Mexican resort town's white beaches or raucous bars, they made a beeline for its convention center, where the World Trade Organization was holding its fifth ministerial conference last month.

These Mexican and foreign activists had come here to protest the WTO, which they said was dominated by the interests of rich nations. For two days thousands of them had been held at bay by 8-foot-tall fences and a black-helmeted sea of Mexican federal police. But on that particular Friday night, 85 activists had slipped through the cracks - and now they were yelling their anti-WTO slogans within earshot of the beast itself.

Cancun was no "Battle of Seattle" - the 1999 WTO ministerial that ended in failure when tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the convention center. This time, the protesters were kept miles away.

But they still managed to make their presence known - literally, as I witnessed the night of Sept. 12, but also symbolically, in the spirit of resistance that pervaded the trade talks. Outside, protesters chanted in the streets; inside, representatives from nongovernmental organizations disrupted press conferences with demonstrations, while delegates from developing nations banded together in defiance. And once again, the talks fell apart.

Why did they fail? The simple answer is that rich countries weren't willing to cut their agricultural subsidies to the degree they had committed to in earlier negotiations, and poor countries in turn rejected proposals to expand the WTO's oversight into new areas.

But the broader reason is that the secretive, inflexible culture of the WTO finally unraveled. In Seattle, the WTO became notorious for its "green rooms" - private meetings outside of the main room where rich nations would buttonhole poor nations alone or in small groups and pressure them to make concessions. In Cancun, despite assurances to the contrary, the "green rooms" continued, but a group of 21 developing nations - led by Brazil, China and India - joined together in an unprecedented coalition (known as the G21) and fought for their collective interests.

Faced with a genuine outpouring of democracy, the rich nations hunkered down, and the talks collapsed. Only a month later, it's still unclear whether the WTO will recover. What is clear is that the old style of negotiations - whereby the world's industrial powers dictated from above, and the world's poor scrambled for the crumbs - is no longer viable, now that the poor are organized and resisting.

The presence of activists in the street emboldened the defiant delegates inside. What's more, it provided an example of the very democracy and diversity that the WTO has scorned. For all the talk of "anti-globalization," these protesters represented a wide range of nationalities (from Mexicans to Americans to Italians to Koreans) and interests (from labor unions to environmentalists to human-rights activists to pagans) - a "movement of movements," to use Naomi Klein's term, or a movement for "global justice," to use their own. For all the fears of rampaging "anarchists," the vast majority of demonstrators (anarchists included) staged peaceful protests.

That September night in Cancun, these activists were showing the world that there were two kinds of globalization: the globalization of the WTO and the globalization of that "other superpower," the people in protest. The activists brought no weapons to the convention center, only a pair of plants - one banana, one almond - that they intended to plant nearby. The Mexican security forces, surprised to find protesters inside the zone, quickly trapped them between barricades.

A meeting was called, and the protesters sat down on the asphalt of Boulevard Kulkulcan and talked strategy. Activists raised their hands and a facilitator called upon them. After each person spoke, another person would translate between Spanish and English. Eventually, the group came to a decision: They would not stay the night, but would accept an offer to leave in return for safe passage downtown, without arrest, in chartered buses.

"I think it was very good that we had patience," one activist said as the meeting ended. "Because then everyone sees that we don't make decisions in the same way as they make decisions." The activists cheered. That had been their point all along.

Victor Tan Chen, a former Newsday reporter, is a Harvard researcher and editor of, a Web magazine on issues of identity and community.

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.



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