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(en) Mexico, The Battle of Cancun Anatomy of an Unexpected Victory*

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 27 Mar 2005 18:46:53 +0200 (CEST)

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Cancun is more than just a passing geopolitical battle. It represents
the interment of a neo-liberal offensive that started in the 1970s...
The WTO is now effectively dead. It will survive on paper, as do
many other interstate institutions, but it will no longer matter.
Cancun: The Collapse of the Neo-Liberal Offensive, Immanuel Wallerstein Commentary No. 122, Oct. 1, 2003
>>>> The collapse of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in
Cancun in September of 2003 was no doubt a great victory for the
global justice movement. While it is true to say that the failure to
produce a deal at Cancun was the result of a revolt inside the
corridors of the Ministerial by the G-23 of developing nations (led
by Brazil, India, China and South Africa) there is no question that
the protests outside on the street also contributed directly to the fall
of the WTO. Here I will take a closer look at the Anti-Globalization/
Global Justice Movement as it mobilized in Cancun, explaining
how the infrastructure of resistance was set up, outlining the aims
and objectives of the mobilization and evaluating the impact of the
various different forms of protest and direct action on the general

An unprecedented level of unity and common cause was achieved
among almost all the different strands of protesters on the streets.
This unity paralleled the endeavor of the developing nations inside
the Ministerial who managed to scuttle the plans of the US, Europe
Union, Japan and sundry allies, stalling the implementation of the
latest round of global trade liberalization. Outside on the streets, a
Korean farmer committed suicide, reminding everyone that the
issues at stake were a matter of life and death. Later, the protesters
spectacularly tore down the fence and a series of impressive direct
actions were carried off. The WTO exited Cancun in disarray, and
the protesters danced in the streets in triumph, joined by official
delegates from developing countries and accredited NGOs from
inside the Ministerial. This surprising tactical convergence of
uncomfortable allies produced extraordinary results that have to be
taken into strategic account for future mobilizations.

So how did it happen?

They make plans, we plan tactics

The stated aim of the mobilization was to Derail the WTO, and
while this was achieved beyond all expectations (surprising the
protesters themselves!) it needs to be stated - De-rail exactly what?
What was the WTO trying to achieve in Cancun and why was it
urgent to de-rail those plans? What was at stake in Cancun? What
tactics could we deploy to put a spanner in the works?

The 5th Ministerial at Cancun was the WTO's latest attempt to
cobble together a constitution for the world that would supercede
national and local legislation, and empower transnational
corporations to hold down wages, monopolize markets, wipe out
small farmers, and wreak havoc on the environment. After a
disastrous 3rd Meeting in Seattle 1999, when protesters famously
blockaded the Convention, the WTO scurried to the faraway
Kingdom of Qatar in the wake of Sep 11 to try to revive their
fortunes. There they set down a blueprint for future global
neo-liberal plans. The guidelines set down in Doha (the Doha
Round) were up for negotiation in Cancun. These included a set of
development issues that didn\u2019t appear on the table in Cancun,
much to the chagrin of the G-32, a developing nation\u2019s
coalition led by Kenya.

The stakes were huge. The US, European and Japan governments
and the big corporations were seeking a major liberalization of
services, agriculture and intellectual property rights as well as bold
new initiatives to copper fasten control on investment, competition
and government procurement. Suffice to say, what was on the table
was an attempt to lock the world economies more tightly in a
neo-liberal regime of privatization and deregulation , thus giving
ever more control to transnational corporations.

In a script that seemed more out of a Star Wars movie than
everyday life, protesters were confronted with a challenge to bring
down the most powerful rulers in the world, the omnipotent
corporations and their lackey armies. What could be done? How
could the neo-liberal empire be stopped?

From the protests at Seattle and elsewhere we learned how
people\u2019s power can disrupt proceedings. By protesting,
raising our collective voices and blockading with our bodies, so we
can disrupt the actual workings of the Ministerial. If we are enough,
and our tactics are creative and daring, then we move from protest
to resistance and we can affect change. If we are few, we need to
make alliances and find spaces where we can make an impact.
Ultimately, the Cancun mobilization fell into the latter category.

Puente a Cancun, or building a bridge without supports.

A group of us based in Chiapas (Mexican, US and Irish nationals)
moved to Cancun five months beforehand to set up a solidarity
space for the mobilization. The aim of our group (Puente a Cancun
\u2014 Bridge to Cancun) was to support the logistical effort on the
ground and provide information and orientation for people arriving
from other parts of Mexico, the US and we hoped, all over the
world. The situation on the ground we met with was a shock
\u2014 there was little local infrastructure in which to hook into. A
new city of 600,000 inhabitants, Cancun was completely geared
towards the tourist industry and its spin offs, and appeared to have
no community organizations, workers groups, social movements or
activist base.

The Cancun Welcoming Committee, the local group supposedly
organizing the protests were a handful of NGO types and
environmentalists, whose mobilizing capacity never seemed to rise
above \u2026a dozen. A little investigation by La Jornada,
Mexico\u2019s left-wing daily, revealed that the Committee was an
opportunistic front for some local PRD (opposition party) politicos
to make a name for them selves (and maybe a few dollars) by
hopping on the anti-globalisation bandwagon. These suspicions
were confirmed when the Committee closed the gates of its offices
in late August to activists and only "welcomed" press and a few well
endowed NGO figures. As d-day approached, the Welcoming
Committee, (riven by splits and now consisting of maybe half dozen
operatives) had ceased to be a main player and was ignored by most
protesters. Ironically, preparations for the Cancun mobilization were
made autonomously of the "official" local organizing body. The
lesson to take away? Sometimes our movement of movements can
be hijacked by bandwagon shysters. Beware opportunists!

From early on, things were looking bad on the ground in Cancun.
Several meetings in our new Puente space broke up with ugly
altercations between rival personalities within the Welcoming
Committee as various insults as well as accusations of infiltration
were thrown around. It became clear that if the organization was
left to this lot, it would be a disaster.

Were there infiltrators involved? Yes, probably. This is inevitable in
mobilizations like this with so much at stake for the authorities. But
sometimes it\u2019s hard to distinguish infiltrators and
provocateurs from wing nuts or hot-heads. In Cancun accusations
flew, and it was damaging to the early organizational efforts. We
had no mechanism to deal with suspicion or infiltration; people
severed, broke up and worked independently. Since the mobilizing
effort was transparent and our aims and intentions public, there
seemed no fundamental damage an infiltrator could wreak. More
blatantly however, both the Welcoming Committee offices and the
Puente a Cancun house were under surveillance. Some slick
thieves broke into our house and carried off a lap-top computer and
some bits and pieces. Cops? Maybe.

So right up to the very cusp of the Ministerial, some 3 weeks
beforehand, we still didn\u2019t have the infrastructure for the
expected 20,000 protesters nailed down. We needed a large
convergence space for meetings, an alternative forum site, camping
facilities with a water supply and toilets, a media centre, a medical
centre, legal help. We had nothing; the organization on the ground
resembled a big black hole. The local Cancun municipal
government dragged their feet negotiating with the Welcoming
Committee as even they realized that they didn\u2019t represent
the arriving protesters. Adding to the confusion, the local mayor
began concurrent negotiations with representatives from the
farmer\u2019s organization Via Campesina. This organization
promised to bring 10,000 militants for the campesino march
(September 10th). They already had a quarrel with the Mexico City
NGO\u2019s and their name was not popular in Chiapas with the
Zapatistas, where our sympathies lay. Nevertheless, sectarianism
aside, we were in this together, so alliances had to be formed.
Meanwhile, students and Anarchists from Mexico City threatened
to ignore all the official negotiations for space and camping and go
ahead and squat the city centre when they arrived.

But eventually things came together: a small group of experienced
and disciplined cadre arrived and together with the group formed
around Puente a Cancun, made things happen. Some money came
from a rich donor and activists dug deep in their pockets. A big
convergence space, a media centre and a medical house were
rented, camping facilities were nailed down in the local sports
centre free of charge from the Mayors office, and a city park was
booked for the duration of the protest actions - for camping,
political and social events. Just a few days before the Ministerial,
the infrastructure was secured, and now all that was needed was the
arriving multitude to fill up the space. Would there be sufficient
space for the expected 20,000 arrivals?

We are everywhere (but sometimes not that many of us)

The 20,000 never came. Maybe a quarter of that made it. The
massive caravans from Mexico City never materialized, nor the
mass nationwide student mobilization, nor the 10,000 campesinos
from Via Campesina, nor the Zapatistas, nor the thousands
expected from the US and Canada and Europe. Instead we got
modest numbers of all of the above. None of the expected popular
Mexican bands turned up, and few of the luminaries of the
anti-globalisation movement came - not even stalwarts like Jose
Bove, Arundhati Roy, Michael Franti or Manu Chao. Why did the
mobilization not attract a big turnout?

Primarily, there was the financial expense involved \u2014 Cancun
is an expensive place to reach. But also we should take into account
the uninspiring logistical organization on the ground from early on,
that resulted in a general lack of confidence that the whole thing
could be pulled of. Furthermore, there was the conflict in Mexico
City causing a split between the more NGO types and the
campesino/activist grouping. The long silence from Chiapas did not
help, as we expected the Zapatistas to put out a call to mobilize,
and send a delegation. Neither was forthcoming. The icing on the
cake was some U.S. NGOs putting out the word to the activist
community NOT to travel to Cancun, but to concentrate on local
organizing, specifically, the FTAA in Miami in November.

Meanwhile, the Mexican authorities were busy trying to dissuade
people coming. Byzantine visa requirements foiled many Central
and South Americans. For those who could make it, memories of
the vicious beating of protesters at the hands of the riot cops at the
WEF (World Economic Forum) in Cancun in 2001 lead to a real
fear of police brutality, injury or even death. The less than generous
human rights record of the Mexican security forces (including the
massacres at Acteal and Aguas Blancas) were not forgotten. Local
police forces boasted in the press that they were ready to "trade an
eye for an eye" with protesters, and rumors circulated that the local
bullring was being prepared as a gulag for activists. It was an almost
foregone conclusion that thousands would be rounded up, security
forces would be out of control and that we would be lucky to get out
of the tourist Mecca in one piece. Predictably as the opening day of
the Ministerial approached, the climate of intimidation increased.

Despite all this, spirits were ebullient as the few thousand protesters
\u2014 farmers, activists, students and a handful of locals mustered
in Cancun City. An unsettling sense of the morbid pervaded the
proceedings as if the anti-globalization movement was here to
attend its own funeral. Critics had argued that this Ministerial could
be the graveyard of the WTO, but now the gravediggers appeared to
be dressed in riot gear as they trundled around in armored vehicles.

Soccer in a Time of Global Crisis

Let us employ the metaphor of a game of soccer to describe the
situation on the ground in the week preceding the Ministerial. Our
team, Anti-Globalisation United was trailing badly. The hostile
environment of Cancun was an away game, 1-0 down already. Our
weak defense, the Welcoming Committee let in an early goal,
that\u2019s 2-0 to the WTO. Half our team not turning up to play,
low numbers, that\u2019s another goal conceded, 3-0.

However hard work on our side to organize the Huracan Alternative
media convergence attended by hundreds of people participating in
workshops on subjects ranging from radio transmitter construction
to the history of indymedia, brings us an opener. That\u2019s 3-1.
The construction of a small model Ecological village at the camping
ground by green-bloc activists put us on the attack again. Our
autonomous media-bloc flyered the local communities and made a
few creative radio slots for local stations conveying our positive and
constructive vision \u2014 putting home a goal for the
Anti-Globalisation side, 3-2. The WTO were rattled and brought
out the heavy artillery, flooding Cancun with cops, and putting fear
into the heart of the Anti-Globalisation attackers. The heavy fence
was erected around the venue, allowing the security forces to score
another goal for the WTO : 4-2. But Anti-Globalisation United
rallied and snuck a naughty one in with players taking to the beach
in the forbidden Red Zone and spelling out "NO WTO" with their
naked bodies. The local media loved it! 4-3!
Then as Anti-Globalisation United gathered for a big strike - the
opening campesino march, the soccer game got cancelled as
greater forces invaded the pitch. The Koreans had arrived and
things got deadly serious. Game\u2019s over.

WTO Kills Farmers \u2014Todos Somos Lee

From Korea had come 200 small farmers and trade unionists. This
group knew how to demonstrate and had a lot of experience of
militant resistance and hard struggle. All of them embraced radical
direct action as a way of protesting the WTO, and all were prepared
to physically combat the riot cops. But none of them expected the
individual action of one of their number, Lee Kyung Hae.

On September 10th, as the Campesino march reached the
barricade, Lee climbed upon the fence separating the protesters and
the WTO, seven kilometers from the Convention Centre and there,
at a point called Kilometer Zero, committed suicide by plunging a
knife into his heart. Everything changed, changed utterly, and
suddenly the gravity of what the protests were all about became
stark. So too the business behind the fence. Before falling, Lee held
up a placard \u2014 WTO Kills Farmers, and led the chant, Down
Down WTO.

What impact did Lee\u2019s sacrifice have on the WTO and the

"The sacrifice by Lee marked the difference," said Mario
Menéndez, editor of a local newspaper, "When he died, the WTO
died with him: we called it the symbolic death of the oppressors."

Lee\u2019s death also had an enormously radicalizing effect among
those who had come to protest. The world turned upside down. The
scattered militancy of the first mobilization evolved over the next
few days into a more coherent tactical unity. Militancy inspires
more radical politics. The obvious affinity between the Korean and
Mexican farmers was augmented by the participation of sundry
direct action groups, anarchists, black bloc-ers, students from
Mexico City and a motley variety of others. The whole was infused
with a moral authority engendered by the power of Lee\u2019s
ultimate sacrifice. Strengthened by the emotional unity born of the
shared grief, the demonstrators were inspired not only by his death
but also by its symbolic register of the millions of deaths which his
gesture evoked. Todos somos Lee.

All week long hundreds of hours had been invested in meetings to
determine what exactly we would try to achieve here. The Day of
Direct Action, September 9th produced a day of almost no action.
The internationals had concocted a daring plan for shutting down
the WTO, but nobody was willing to actually put themselves out to
do it. The Mexico City students, the supposed "direct action" crew
politely refused the role of fall-guys for the internationals plan,
saying "their plan is effective, but its not ours\u2026" The failure to
do anything on the Day of Direct Action, the disunity and bad
feelings left from the breakdown in communication among the
protesters became moot as most everyone unified behind the
Korean delegation in an unscripted but singular objective: to destroy
the fence.

As a motley crew of militants, led by the Koreans tore down the
fence and attacked police lines with sticks, bricks, appropriated
police batons and not a few well aimed karate kicks, why did the
security forces not respond? They kept their line, ten deep, and the
water cannon remained idle. Gas was not fired, nor rubber bullets,
nothing. The cop lines took a pasting all afternoon and responded
only by swinging batons and chucking rocks back.

Probably the word came from above for no more blood to be spilt.
Lee\u2019s action rattled the Mexican authorities and the WTO
officials. From here on in, it was going to be kid gloves with the
protesters. In this sense, Lees sacrifice also saved countless arrests
and injuries. Over the next few days a variety of daring, creative and
provocative actions took place and the sum total of arrests and
serious injury remained zero.

Protesters on a Move: We are Winning

Next day, a rambunctious cacerolazo of 1,000 people snaked its
way across downtown Cancún. Some black blocers took advantage
of the event to smash up a Pizza Hut, causing the usual immediate
arguments in the ranks about property destruction. When the police
responded by sending hundreds of riot cops to the vicinity, a sense
of unity amongst the marchers was reestablished. Emboldened
protesters were not intimidated and the police dispersed, allowing
the dance to continue into the wee hours under the warm tropical

The following day showed a great increase in activity. An audacious
early morning banner drop in front of the Convention Centre
demanded Que se vayan todos! - that they ALL must go!, a slogan
from the Argentina uprising. Inside the Ministerial, accredited
NGO\u2019s continued to disrupt proceedings and an African
delegation lead by Kenya was threatening revolt. A WTO
spokesperson held a press conference during which he intimated
that the Ministerial Conference was almost unsalvageable. That
evening about 100 demonstrators posing as tourists infiltrated the
Red Zone and blocked the road in front of the WTO convention
center. The front line locked arms and sat facing traffic while the
rest sang and danced behind them, reclaiming the real sense of the
place, the so-called Party Zone. This very effective action
demonstrated our ability to breach police lines and cause more than
just symbolic disruption. Some WTO delegates and NGOs came
out to applaud the action.

Though pressure increased from police throughout the action, the
kid gloves strategy remained - demonstrators managed to negotiate
an exit from the blockade in which they were provide with luxury
buses that carried them to kilometer zero and a festive welcome
from the Koreans and mourners at the Memorial site for Mr Lee.

Tactically astute as ever, groups of Koreans would intermittingly
(and through the night) arise from their mourning rituals at the
Kilometer Zero site, to go off and attack the fence. This
mischievousness kept the cops on their feet, uncertain, confused
and probably well intimidated by these determined Korean cadre
kicking and beating the fence at regular intervals.

That same day 400 people reclaimed an abandoned building
downtown. Several dozen riot police gathered nearby, however the
mood remained festive and non-confrontational. Traditional music
was played and free food served.

By the time of the big march, The Global Day of Action against the
WTO, Sep 13, we were brimming with confidence and knew the
WTO was on the rack. The local media had moved over somewhat
to our side and the local people began to come out. The Korean
delegation led the 10,000 demonstrators to the reinforced eight foot
fence the police had erected to replace the one dismantled on the
10th. A far more formidable blockade, it was actually three fences,
one behind the other. Everyone was united and clear in the aim of
this protest \u2014 to destroy that fence. We went about our work
gleefully. First up, a couple of hundred women amassed along the
long barricade and set about it with many bolt cutters. Next, heavy
ropes were attached, and through a great communal effort of
hundreds of disciplined and spirited activists, the fence was pulled
to the ground. The atmosphere was otherworldly as the mammoth
structure began to buckle and sway, and a great collective oh my
god we\u2019re really fucking doing it! gripped the crowd. The
fence torn asunder, lines of riot cops edgily filled in the gaping
holes, batons drawn. What now?

In an unorthodox but tactically brilliant move, the protesters
surprised all by turning their backs and sitting down. We had
achieved our aims. Another battle with the cops would be
counter-productive. A ceremony was held for Comrade Lee and
then the electrifying news was announced in Korean, Spanish and
English that not only had a group of Koreans made it into the
Convention Centre but also that the G21 had declared their refusal
to support the proposal of the USA and the EU. We are winning!

Lessons from Cancun

"I learned that nobody respects someone who negotiates with his
head bowed. Nobody respects anyone who negotiates as a lackey.
With our heads lifted, defending our self-interest, we shall be able
to grow and open extraordinary spaces\u2026"
President Lula da Silva, Brazil September 16 speech about
collapse of WTO meeting in Cancún

The derailing of trade agreements at Cancun was crucial for us.
Though our governments try and take the credit, we know that it
was the result of years of struggle by many millions of people in
many, many countries. What Cancun taught us is that in order to
inflict real damage and force radical change, it is vital for local
resistance movements to make international alliances. From
Cancun we learned the importance of globalising resistance\u2026
Radical change will not be negotiated by governments; it can only
be enforced by people.
Arundhati Roy, Mumbai World Social Forum, January 24, 2004

And that is the lesson of Cancun. The summit mobilizations are the
tip of the iceberg, representing the ant work that has been done
beforehand, with each and every local struggle contested at
community, municipal or city level. The sum of all these struggles
leads to a critical mass of resistance where even the national
governments must take heed, and the combined pressure of all
these little struggles comes to bear on these global summits.

What do we marching in the streets have in common with strange
bedfellows like the G21? There is no common ground between
Anti-Capitalists and the ruling class cut-throats of countries like
China, Colombia, Nigeria, Pakistan, or Guatemala. The dissenting
delegations of the G21 were no doubt the product of many years of
pressure exerted by the Anti-globalisation movement. India, for
example, joined the G-21 because the struggle waged by its
massive farmers' movement, which uses suicide and the mass
destruction of GM crops as tactics, was simply greater than the
pressure coming from Washington.

With peoples' movements marching in the city center and NGOs
demonstrating hourly inside and outside the convention hall from
the opening session on, Cancun, as Walden Bello pointed out,
became a microcosm of the power of global dynamics of states and
civil society. The collapse of the Ministerial was a confirmation, not
of the democratic nature of the WTO, nor of the faith we hold in
our government representatives, but that global civil society is
emerging as the worlds second superpower.

And as if to reinforce the notion of Civil Society (or the Global
justice Movement) as an emerging global player, the final act of the
day of global action against the WTO was the burning of a US flag.
This action symbolized the shift of focus of struggle of the
movement from global neo-liberal institutions to once more
confronting the US war machine and its aspiration for Empire.

The United Colors of Resistance and the Global Mob

But let\u2019s not get carried away as to the extent of the success
at Cancun. As a Korean delegate said \u2014 "This was a victory
that was handed to us, not won by our strength\u2026" The impact
of Lees extraordinary action cannot be underestimated, but nor can
suicide enter the movements repertoire of tactical deployments. So
what can we take from Cancun, as an inspiration for future
mobilizations and for the movement in general?

Let us remember September 13th 2003 at the fortified metal fence
that excluded the protesters from reaching the WTO convention
Centre. Let us remember how many hands helped to weave dozens
of little ropes into a half dozen 50-metre boa-constrictor-like
super-ropes. And as that sturdy rigging was carried to the fence, let
us remember the autonomous action by the groups of women who
went ahead with bolt cutters to set about dismantling the fence.
Confronting the lines of riot police, the women succeeded in
weakening the fortification enough so that when the huge ropes
were attached, already the fence was buckled.

Let us remember that while it was the Korean delegation who led
the direct action, it was the anarchist contingent who protected
their flanks, armed with sticks and their bodies to repel any
preemptive police charge. And as the musicians played and the
drummers beat out liberating rhythms, and as the majestic puppet
of Chac the Mayan God guarded over our actions, let us remember
and cherish a very beautiful few hours as hundreds of people, egged
on by thousands of others, pulled on the ropes to tear down the
mighty fence. It was like a vision from a fanciful
Sub-Commandante Marcos communiqué as the brown, yellow,
black and white arms heaved in harmony, the sweat running down
peoples faces, this hard labor made light by the unity of men and
women, young and old, and piece by piece the great odious fence
was dismantled by the united colors of resistance.

Farmers from Korea and punks from Mexico City, fishermen from
the Yucatan and aids activists from South Africa, indigenous from
Oaxaca and media workers from Japan, NGO\u2019s from the
USA and anarchists from Europe, campesinos from Honduras and
land squatters from Brazil, all united in one act of creative
destruction. A few ex-guerrillas from the Central America, a few
Zapatistas, a few Marxists, some students, some hooligans, and
many many everyday people- the guy in the photocopy center, the
laborer on the hotel site, the waiter in the pizzeria, the lady selling
tortas in the market, the artisan vendor, the sex worker \u2014 all
united, all heaving on that sturdy boa constrictor of a rope to pull
down that fucking fence and announcing - behold the global mob,
the new communists, the old masses, the future inheritors of the
earth, the revolutionary class\u2026 and the other world that is now

On a sunny day in Cancun, we saw walls come crushing down.

(Printed in Days of Dissent* - Reflections on Summit Mobilisations,
October 2004)
* [Ed. Note: Dissent! is antiauthoritarian anticapitalist
direct action social struggle initiative against the G8.]

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