Cancún diary

Opposition from the world's poorest countries derails the World Trade Organization's Fifth Ministerial Meeting


September 8/9

©Alyssa Johl

Will it be a replay of Seattle, 1999? That’s a question on many minds as delegates, 4,000 observers, 1,500 journalists, and tens of thousands of critics arrive in Cancún for the fifth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Mexico is reported to be making it difficult for potential protestors to attend the meetings or associated teach-ins and rallies. Some groups report that their applications for visas or credentials have been mysteriously “lost.” Mexico is charging representatives of NGOs $99 for a visa-like document, a sum that will make it difficult for some organizations to be represented. A Mexican newspaper recently reported that the government has put together a list of 60 incomodos (undesirables) to be “monitored” this week in Cancún, including Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, and many other prominent WTO critics.

In the official proceedings, it looks as if agricultural subsidies and tariffs will again be a hot topic, and here the split between north and south is quite stark. The US and the EU are at odds with other countries (led by China, India, and Brazil) over how to proceed with what they call the “liberalization” of trade in agricultural products. All countries want to gain access to foreign markets; they also want to protect their own farmers. It is a thorny problem that could, they say, derail this meeting altogether.

Meanwhile, the big kahunas of the WTO want to launch formal negotiations on four new topics - investment, transparency in government procurement, competition policy, and trade facilitation - referred to as the “Singapore issues” after the location of the 1996 meeting that first discussed them. What they hope for with respect to government procurement, for example, would include rules making it illegal for city governments to require that a percentage of city contracts be awarded to companies within that city. It’s far more complicated, of course, but it’s easy to see why there’s determined resistance to the Singapore issues: they would ease rules that hinder transnational corporations from doing business as they please.

In many ways, Cancún is the perfect place to have a WTO meeting. It is like two cities that could hardly be more different. One, where the ministerial will be held starting tomorrow, is Vegas times ten without the casinos: scores of garish hotels cheek by jowl for miles along the spectacular beach, teeming with tourists, mostly from the US, or so it seems.

The other part of Cancún is more like the real world. The town has outdoor restaurants, shops, street vendors, and street musicians. It is here where the contingent of demonstrators is slowly gathering. And now, the two Cancúns are divided by a fence, guarded by police and military.

September 10
Late yesterday afternoon, in an overflowing press conference, a group of agriculture ministers of developing countries insisted that their views be reckoned with. Five ministers - from Brazil, India, China, South Africa, and Costa Rica - representing a new coalition of 21 nations representing more than half of the world’s population and nearly two thirds of the world’s farmers, are dead serious about reforming trade in agricultural products… their way.

This comes on the heels of a long and difficult negotiation between the US and the EU over agricultural policies. Both want to gain access to foreign markets and both want to protect their own farmers. In the end the US and the EU agreed to reduce subsidies and tariffs, as long as the rest of the world agrees to throw open its doors to their agricultural products - a bit of blackmail.

But the rest of the world may not play along. The new Group of 21 (G21) has advanced its own draft document, which provides that developing countries be treated differently from rich countries in order to fight hunger and protect small farmers. This has the odor of something that could derail this meeting altogether.

Which would suit Lori Wallach just fine. Wallach, of the US NGO Public Citizen, was one of a number of speakers who participated in the teach-in sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) yesterday. The story of the day was censorship of the IFG and its long-planned event.

The teach-in was set to take place in the Teatro Cancún, roughly halfway between the Convention Center and the town. I attended a morning briefing near the center, then hopped on a municipal bus for the ride to the theater. A mile or so from the theater, traffic came to a halt, and soon we could see police cars blocking the road, lights flashing. The federales had blocked traffic there, and again where the road meets the town, which made it difficult to get to the theater and held attendance to a minimum. (In Seattle, the IFG event sold out a large opera house. In Cancún - where admission was free - the place was almost empty.) In addition to the roadblocks, some reported having heard a radio announcement to the effect that the teach-in had been cancelled. We may never know the whole story, but suggestions that the WTO was too nervous to tolerate informed dissent sound more than plausible.

September 11
The conference has begun. The Director General of the WTO, the Foreign Minister of Mexico, the Chairman of the WTO, and Mexican President Vincente Fox welcomed the delegates, insisting that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move the world forward toward a tariff-free trading regime that will “lift all boats” and eradicate poverty.

The nascent developing-country coalition was the subtext to most everything else today. When WTO Director General Supachai Panitchpakdi was asked if the agriculture proposal put forward by the new G21 would be considered on a equal footing with the one put forward by the US and the EU - and more or less adopted by WTO president Castillo - he retreated into abstractions: We should concentrate on substance rather than procedure, he said.

Today’s papers carry reports of the suicide of Kyung Hae Lee, a Korean farmer and magazine editor, who stabbed himself to death yesterday at the fence that divides the rest of the world from the WTO. He was carrying a sign reading “WTO Kills Farmers” just before plunging a knife into his chest. A friend of the farmer told reporters it was “an act of sacrifice.” The tragedy came at the end of a mostly peaceful demonstration attended by somewhere between 3,000 and 15,000 people.

During the opening ceremony, just as President Fox began his remarks, a group of speakers from Tuesday’s teach-in boiled up in the press working area holding signs reading “WTO is Undemocratic,” “WTO is Obsolete,” “WTO is Anti-Development” and offering their comments on the whole affair.

September 12
The G21 (recently swollen to 26 countries, according to late-afternoon reports) has attracted much attention with its challenge to the US and the EU. Some here think that if the attempt to agree on a framework for further agriculture negotiations fails, the US might put its weight behind the Singapore issues. But at another briefing yesterday afternoon, a group of developing-country spokespeople vowed that the Singapore issues will go nowhere at this meeting.

There were more demonstrations inside the convention center yesterday: one of them raucous and the other a quite moving and dignified memorial for the Korean farmer who took his life Wednesday. For that ceremony, as many as 50 people wearing the green scarves of Mexican campesinos, black and white arm bands, and carrying white flowers filed into the big press briefing room and made quiet statements in tribute to Kyung Hae Lee.

September 13
Agriculture still dominates the news here. A WTO spokesman promised last evening that a new draft ministerial declaration, the basis for further negotiations between the US, EU, and G21, would be given to the conference chairman. The Brazilian delegate asked for statements from NGOs around the world supporting G21 unity. Unless US arm-twisting succeeds in fracturing the G21, the only concrete achievement of the week may turn out to have been Cambodia’s and Nepal’s joining the WTO.

Before these meetings began, the WTO announced an agreement to allow poor countries being ravaged by AIDS and other diseases to import cheap generic drugs. But several knowledgable sources, including the formidable Martin Khor of the Third World Network and Sharonann Lynch of Health GAP, argue that there are so many conditions attached to the deal that few if any generic drug makers in the Third World will be willing or able to manufacture the medicines. The deal, they say, is in fact a cleverly disguised continuation of the status quo.

September 14
If the definition of compromise is something that makes everyone unhappy, then yesterday’s draft ministerial declaration was a howling success. Nearly everyone had something bad to say about it.

The NGOs were cutting and passionate in their denunciation of the draft, which, in the most contentious areas - agriculture, and whether or not to launch negotiations on the Singapore issues - mainly reflected the wishes of the US and the EU on agriculture, and of the EU on Singapore.

“[The draft] completely ignores the concerns of the developing world,” said Ronnie Hall of Friends of the Earth International. Meena Ramen of Friends of the Earth Malaysia reported that developing-country delegates, after being given copies of the document, streamed out of the hall shaking their heads and looking dazed, not understanding how they could have been so utterly ignored.

The agriculture section is hardly changed from the earlier draft, which was very similar to a proposal put forward by the US and the EU in August. It calls for developing countries to open their markets to agricultural products from Europe and the US in return for vague assurances of lowered export tariffs and reduced domestic price supports. It’s as if competing proposals, such as the one brought to the table by the Group of 21, did not exist.

In addition, and perhaps more surprisingly, the new draft includes the four Singapore issues. Two days ago, 70 countries declared bluntly that they would not tolerate inclusion of any of the Singapore issues in the declaration.

One thing making lots of people nervous is that the final declaration isn’t produced until a few hours before the meetings are scheduled to end. This does not allow time for a careful review of the document, especially by poor countries that don’t have flotillas of lawyers. This happened two years ago at Doha, and when the text finally appeared, the WTO, the US, and the EU put enormous pressure on other countries to approve it. It worked, and a document that contained items many countries would later object to was accepted. Remember, there are no votes in the WTO. Everything is done by consensus and off the record.

September 15
The whole thing came crashing down Sunday afternoon, when Mexican foreign minister and conference chairman Ernesto Derbez abruptly pulled the plug. It had become apparent - to him at least - that further pursuit of consensus would be futile. This time, the rich countries and the WTO itself were not to have their way.

The key issue was agricultural tariffs and price supports. The second big problem was the Singapore issues.

Just before the meetings began, the US and the EU, which have long had difficulties with each other’s agriculture policies, got together and cooked up a joint proposal for this meeting. In response a new coalition of Third World countries - including China, India, Brazil, and 17 others, representing more than half the population of the world - wrote their own proposal.

After three days of debate, Chairman Derbez submitted a new draft text mid-day Saturday covering those and many other issues. The draft was criticized by country after country at a session that lasted until 1:00 a.m. Sunday. Most of the criticism was directed toward the Singapore issues, which a large number of developing countries had already said they wanted no part of. Sunday morning, debate resumed. Chairman Derbez suggested a compromise whereby two of the four Singapore issues would be shelved and two put forward for formal negotiations. A number of delegates said they’d have to consider it and consult with their allies and governments back home. A recess was taken. When they returned, many delegates - representing as many as 90 countries, according to one African delegate - said there was no way they would agree to any of the Singapore issues. (They’d been saying this most of the week, but evidently some powerful people didn’t believe them.) At this point, Derbez realized consensus was impossible and declared the meeting adjourned.

Delegates from developing countries went to the press room, and spontaneous press conferences and interviews sprang up in all corners of the room. The delegates I happened to hear - from Uganda, Malaysia, Indonesia, Guinea - were happy, explaining that they had been ignored far too long; maybe now the rich countries would take them seriously.

NGOs critical of the WTO, including many environmental organizations, were likewise celebrating the slowing, if not stopping, of a juggernaut that threatens to roll over environmental protections the world over.

Then a string of press briefings began. First came the new Group of 21-plus. Ministers from Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, Ecuador, and Egypt took turns explaining that they had put together a well-considered and progressive agricultural alternative and had been ignored, so they had no choice but to scuttle the meetings. They were followed by the trade representative for the US, Robert Zoellick, who said he regretted what had happened but the US would simply press forward with bilateral trade deals. Fourteen are under negotiation, not to mention the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would include every country in the western hemisphere except Cuba.

Next came WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi and Chairman Derbez. The Director-General regretted the failure of the meeting, as did the Chairman; both pledged to press on in Geneva, the WTO’s headquarters. Reporters’ questions suggested that not a small number of European delegates thought Chairman Derbez had given up too soon. Others wondered why he had chosen to have Singapore debated before agriculture. He explained that Singapore was clearly the most contentious issue, and he needed to see if there was room for compromise.

Next came the EU and its formidable representative Pascal Lamy. He blamed the mess on the WTO itself. “I called it a medieval institution in Seattle and got a lot of flack then. I say the same thing now.” But in fact, it was Lamy and the EU that insisted on including the Singapore issues in the draft, which doomed the meeting.

So what to make of all this? Most of the speakers in a long night of press conferences acknowledged that this is a serious setback but not a fatal one, that the WTO will regroup in Geneva and soldier on. Others think the outcome may signal something far more profound, that the balance of geopolitical power may be beginning to change, that the rest of the world is coming together to challenge the power and arrogance of the US and the EU.

Greenpeace’s Marcello Furtado spoke for many when he said that either the WTO must change fundamentally or make way for a new and more fair and democratic organization to govern international trade.

Time will tell whether this was just a speed bump on the fast track to the money-is-everything global village or whether it may be the beginning of a move toward a more sustainable system that will better serve both the earth and its inhabitants. Many people and organizations, inspired by what happened yesterday, will be working hard to ensure that it’s the second possibility that comes true.

Tom Turner is senior editor at Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, former editor of Not Man Apart, and an old friend of Earth Island. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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