Asia Times Online
| By Diego Cevallos | 10 September 2003
MEXICO CITY - This week's World Trade Organization (WTO)
ministerial conference in the Mexican resort of Cancun
will also serve as a showcase and podium for nearly
2,000 civil-society organizations from 83 countries,
whose members have been flowing in by the plane and
The protesters are part of the diverse international
movement that is opposed to the current model of
About one-third of the non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) present this week in Cancun come from Canada,
the United States and Mexico, one-third are from the
European Union, and the rest are from Asia, Africa and
South America, said Melba Pria, the Mexican government
official in charge of relations with NGOs.
"Cancun will be a showcase for gauging the weight of
the NGOs and finding out if the governments of
industrialized countries and corporations are willing
to listen to them and accept some of their proposals,"
said Adam Jones, with the political studies department
at the Mexican Center for Economic Research and
The fifth WTO ministerial conference, which will run
Wednesday through Sunday in the resort city of Cancun
in southeastern Mexico, is crucial to the future of
the current round of multilateral trade talks launched
at the last WTO meeting, held in 2001 in Doha, Qatar,
that is to be concluded by January 1, 2005.
The talks have reached an impasse over many issues,
due mainly to discrepancies between rich countries and
the developing world, which already turned the third
ministerial conference, held in December 1999 in the
US city of Seattle, into a fiasco.
The meeting in Seattle, which ended without an
agreement to start a new round of talks, was marked by
major clashes between activists and police, and is
regarded by many as the starting point for the
But social researchers underline that what happened in
Seattle was only the most visible expression of the
movement up to that point, and that the groups opposed
to globalization in its current shape and form have
been holding protests since the early 1990s.
One of the first mobilizations of the so-called
"anti-globalization" movement was the anti-APEC (Asia
Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) international day
of protest held in November 1996 in the Philippines.
The NGOs complain that the WTO is dominated by the
governments of the industrialized world and large
corporations, a situation that they say translates
into policies that act against poor countries. While
some of the groups are demanding the "democratization"
of the WTO and a shift in direction for the
international body, others want it to be dismantled.
Taking part in the protests this week will be
delegates of a broad range of NGOs, from groups that
have consultative status with the United Nations, such
as the Association of World Citizens, an international
peace organization with branches in 50 countries, to
radical groups known for their violent tactics, such
as Italy's Tute Bianche.
Of the roughly 2,000 organizations that will be
present, 980 are accredited with the WTO to
participate officially in the ministerial conference.
Of the accredited groups, 30 percent are organizations
of farmers and campesinos, 20 percent are
environmental organizations, and 20 percent are groups
that focus on such issues as globalization, gender,
human rights and trade.
Some 300 business associations are also taking part,
but activists complain that they merely represent the
interests of transnational corporations.
The WTO and the Mexican government turned down
requests for accreditation from at least another 200
civil-society groups, arguing that their focus and
activities had nothing to do with the issues to be
discussed at the conference.
The representatives of the 980 participating NGOs will
share the Caribbean resort's elegant hotels and take
part in the meetings with the ministers and officials
of multilateral bodies in the resort area of Cancun.
In the meantime, the delegates of about 1,000
civil-society organizations, mainly rural, indigenous,
labor and women's groups, as well as hundreds of
independent activists, will be camped out in parks,
theaters and sports clubs 10 kilometers away in the
city of Cancun itself.
The NGOs that received accreditation from the WTO
conference will be allowed to attend the ministerial
debates. They will also be able to broadcast their
proposals and suggestions free of charge on a special
television channel that will function during the
conference, and to post documents on the WTO website.
By contrast, the Mexican government will not allow the
organizations attending the parallel People's Forum
for Alternatives to the WTO to approach the convention
center where the trade ministers from the WTO's 146
member countries will meet.
If the participants in the People's Forum or
protesters attempt to press past special checkpoints
set up along the only road leading to the conference
site, they will face more than 1,000 police officers
with strict orders to keep them out.
Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace Mexico, one
of the groups that will take part in the ministerial
conference, said the NGOs are not interested in using
violence, "despite what some governments want people
On the contrary, "what we are seeking is dialogue, to
set forth proposals that have long been taking shape",
he said. "When clashes occur, due to the attitude of
some police or to a strategy of provocation by a tiny
minority of activists, enormous damage is caused to
organized civil society," he said.
Students from the National Autonomous University of
Mexico, who have admitted to having ties with Tute
Bianche, announced that they would equip themselves
with helmets, protective padding for arms and legs,
and baseball bats to confront the police and clear a
way through the cordon for groups that want to reach
the conference site.
Alvaro Lopez, with Mexico's National Union of
Agricultural Workers, said members of his group and
others would march toward the meeting area, "and we do
not rule out the possibility of blood being shed".
More than 30,000 people from every region and
continent will be protesting globalization in its
current shape and form in Cancun, and will "push for
the failure" of the WTO meeting, said Hector de la
Cueva, spokesman for the Mexican Network of Action
Against Free Trade.
Among the Mexican NGOs coordinating the protests and
other events to take place in the streets and squares
of Cancun, whose representatives have been in the city
for over a month, differences have arisen in the past
few days with respect to what format the protests
"I believe the majority of the civil-society
organizations do not want to derail the meeting, but
would like to push the WTO on to a more equitable
track to ensure a globalization process that is closer
to the people," said Pria, the Mexican government
Spokespeople for conservative Mexican President
Vicente Fox say freedom of speech is guaranteed in
Cancun, but warned that any attempt to shut down the
conference would be blocked.
Jones, at the Mexican Center for Economic Research and
Teaching, said most of the activists reject violence.
But, he added, if the clashes with police had not
taken place in Seattle and at later international
meetings, "the governments would not have felt the
pressure and urgent need to listen to these groups".
Most of the NGOs describe themselves as "peaceful",
and share the common denominator of questioning the
present model of globalization, despite the fact that
the tools the activists have used to make their
movement an international one, such as the Internet,
emerged from the globalization process itself.
In the past 30 years, civil society has gone from
being a mere concept to an organized movement with
enormous influence around the world, Jones noted.
Many of the groups present this week in Cancun have
also regularly taken part in the World Social Forum,
which has drawn critics of the current globalization
model to the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre
in January or February over the past three years to
discuss alternatives to unfettered neo-liberal
"In the constellation of NGOs, there are all kinds of
interests and strategies, but the ones that draw the
most attention from the media are certain violent
groups, which discredit the movement," said Jones.
(Inter Press Service)