The Meaning of Cancun

Why did the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun collapse? why were all those people out on the streets? Walden Bello, a central figure in resistence to the WTO, says a new constellation of power has emerged.
Andrew Stern/

On the edge of the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, this fall, thousands of people from around the world gathered for a somber purpose at the barricades separating official WTO talks from the outside world. They came together to mourn Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean farmer who had committed suicide on the police barricades earlier that week in protest of WTO policies that are decimating the Korean farm economy. At the memorial gathering, speaker after speaker repeated the message: “The sacrifice of Compañero Lee was not in vain. We will continue his work, and his spirit of struggle will live on in our hearts as we keep fighting for that better world that is possible.”

As the memorial ended, word came from inside the convention center that the Kenyan delegation had just walked out of the latest round of WTO negotiations. Representatives of South Korea and India followed suit, and a few minutes later, the chair of the session, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Derbez, made it official: there was no consensus at the WTO's Fifth Ministerial and talks were over.

The collapse of the Cancun ministerial provided confirmation of The New York Times' observation after February's worldwide antiwar protests that global civil society is the world's second superpower. Evident in Cancun was a remarkable confluence between the governments of the developing world and the forces of global civil society—represented by both the protesters outside the barricades and the credentialed representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) inside the convention center. Since the 1999 WTO talks in Seattle, civil society and the governments of developing countries have interacted more and more intensively on trade issues. NGOs have assisted these governments in the political and technical aspects of negotiations and have mobilized international public opinion against the stands taken by the governments of rich countries on such issues as drug patents and public health. These NGOs have also organized domestic coalitions that keep pressure on their governments, strengthening their resolve to resist pressure from the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.) in Cancun and elsewhere.

The marches in the city center and the demonstrations occurring hourly inside and outside the convention hall transformed Cancun into a microcosm of the global dynamics of states and civil society.

Farmers, suicide, and medicine
Agriculture was among the top issues on the WTO agenda. The U.S. and E.U. subsidies to agribusiness, at the rate of $1 billion per day, were creating a glut of cheap rice on the world market. These imports were devastating formerly self-sufficient Korean farmers, resulting in widespread bankruptcy and forced moves to urban slums. In March 2003, Lee Kyung Hae, as president of the South Korean Farmers Federation, brought his concerns to WTO headquarters in Geneva, where the agency was drafting its new agricultural proposals, but his concerns went unheard.

The second draft of the ministerial text, issued in Cancun, made clear that the U.S. and the E.U. were unwilling to make significant cuts in their agricultural subsidies even as they demanded that developing countries bring down their tariffs. Lee Kyung Hae's suicide on September 10 symbolized the desperation of the world's farmers. His heroic act was finally acknowledged by the governments' meeting in Cancun with a moment of silence.

The collapse of the WTO talks represented a victory for people throughout the world, not a “missed opportunity” for a global deal. The Doha Round of trade negotiations, initiated in Qatar during the fourth ministerial in November 2001, was never a “development round,” as it had been called by representatives of developed countries. Emblematic of this state of affairs was Washington's refusal, up to the eve of the Cancun ministerial, to live up to the Doha Declaration's requirement that public health concerns take precedence over the patent rights of pharmaceutical corporations. At stake was the ability of the developing countries to arrange affordable imports of life-saving drugs for people suffering from HIV-AIDS and other diseases. The U.S. retreated from its staunch defense of corporate patent rights on these drugs only when cumbersome procedures were added that would make it difficult for developing countries to actually acquire the drugs.

Likewise it was clear that the E.U. and U.S. were disregarding the Doha Declaration's stipulation that there be explicit consensus on launching negotiations on the “new issues” of investment, government procurement, competition policy, and trade facilitation. The draft included an immediate move into negotiations on investment and government procurement. The message at Cancun seemed to be: negotiate on the terms of the E.U. and the U.S. or not at all. Not surprisingly, developing countries walked out.

What future for the WTO?
Two collapsed WTO ministerials (Seattle and Cancun) and one that barely made it (Doha) make the institution useful to no one. For the trade superpowers, the WTO may no longer be a viable instrument for imposing their will on others. For the developing countries, membership has not brought protection from abuses by the powerful economies, much less served as a mechanism of development. This is not to say that the WTO is dead. But with momentum stalled once again, the machinery will slow down.
What are the implications of a weakened WTO? Some have argued that the mechanisms of the WTO could be invoked to protect the interests of developing countries. Partisans of this view say that one is better off with the WTO than with the bilateral trade deals that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says will now receive Washington's priority.

This is a false choice. The WTO is not a neutral set of rules, procedures, and institutions that can be used to protect the interests of weaker players. The rules themselves institutionalize the current system of global economic inequality. Poor countries have few weapons. The WTO is not a truly multilateral organization. It is a mechanism to perpetuate the U.S.-E.U. dominance in the global economy.

A counterbalance
Crucial to the stalemate at Cancun was the emergence of a remarkable new player: an alliance of southern nations led by Brazil, India, China, and South Africa, called the Group of 21. This alliance could alter the global balance of forces among nations as a counter to the power of the E.U. and the U.S. Its potential clout was signaled by Celso Amorin, the Brazilian trade minister, when he noted that it represents over half the world's population and over 63 percent of its farmers.

“We stand united,” Amorin said in his address to the ministerial. “We sincerely hope that others will hear our message and, instead of confronting us or trying to divide us, will join forces in our endeavour to inject new life into the multilateral trading system, to bring it closer to the needs and aspirations of those who have been at its margins—indeed the vast majority—those who have not had the chance to reap the fruit of their toils. It is high time to change this reality. This should be the spirit of Cancun.”

The democratic potential of the Group of 21 should not be overestimated. The Group's most vocal members are large agro-exporters, and the alliance is mainly focused on reducing agricultural subsidies in the rich nations. It has yet to address protection for smaller farmers, who actually feed most of the world's poor. Nevertheless, support for sustainable agriculture and small farms could move up on the Group's agenda, and the Group could extend its mandate to industry and services.

Even more exciting is the possibility that the Group of 21 could serve as the engine of cooperation among southern nations that goes beyond trade to coordination of policies on investment, capital flows, industrial policy, social policy, and environmental policy. Such forms of South-South cooperation centered on the priority of development over trade could provide an alternative to both the WTO and to the bilateral free-trade agreements now being pursued by the U.S. and the E.U.

The Group of 21 will find a natural ally in global civil society, but such an alliance will not be easy. Progressive civil society groups may be comfortable dealing with the Brazilian government headed by the Workers' Party, but they will be ill at ease with the Indian government, which is religiously fundamentalist and economically free-market oriented, and with the Chinese government, which is authoritarian and tilting towards neoliberalism. Nevertheless, alliances are forged in practice, and no government should be written off as impossible to win over to the side of people-oriented sustainable development.

First, a pause to celebrate
After Cancun, the challenge for global civil society is to redouble efforts to dismantle the structures of inequality and to push for global economic alternatives that will truly advance the interests of the poor, the marginalized, and the disempowered.

Meanwhile, the opponents of corporate-driven globalization have a right to celebrate the collapse of the Fifth Ministerial. Their theme song might be activist Carol Bergin's adaptation of the Beatles' “Can't Buy Me Love,” which was belted out on the ground floor of the convention center in Cancun when word came of the collapse of negotiations:

Our world is not for sale, my friend,
Just to keep you satisfied.
You say you'll bring us health and wealth,
Well we know that you just lied.
We don't care too much for Zoellick,
Zoellick can't buy the world.
Can't buy the wo-orld,
Listen while we tell you so.
Can't buy the wo-orld, no no no no-o-o!
No new issues in Cancun,
You know that's just not right.
No arm-twisting delegates
Or Green Rooms through the night.
We don't care too much for bullies,
Business can't rule the world.
Can't rule the wo-orld, listen while we tell you so,
Can't rule the wo-orld, no no no no-o-o!!

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