Cancun: Connecting the Dots of Resistance (12/03)

For at least two years, the need to better understand and oppose neo-liberal capitalism and the self-serving Bush administration has become increasingly urgent. Using tactics that are clearly alarming and potentially criminal, both appear devoted primarily to advancing corporate agendas and wealthy elites at the expense of the planet and most of its inhabitants.

Globalization and war not only have detrimental effects on human life. They are destroying the Earth’s life-support systems. In short, an economic model backed by military might has the potential to turn our world into one giant killing field. Sub-commandante Marcos, leader of the Mexican indigenous rebel Zapatistas, calls it "a war against humanity." In a communiqué to World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters in Cancun, Mexico this September, he explained, "The globalization of those who are above us is nothing more than a global machine that feeds on blood and defecates in dollars."

That war is certainly intensifying, and the stakes are very high.

Clearly, anti-war, global justice, and social movements need to unite. Yet, ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, a nagging question has been repeatedly asked: "What is the global justice movement’s direction in the US?" As the US rushed to war, burgeoning peace mobilizations seemed to overshadow efforts to halt corporate globalization. In reality, however, most global justice activists are also outspoken opponents of war, imperialism, and neo-colonialism. Many were on the front lines of protests against the Iraq invasion.

In the global economic arena, one of the latest confrontations took place from October 10-14 in Cancun, where WTO talks collapsed. Most of those who came to protest were encamped downtown, about six miles from the Convention Center. Wire mesh barricades were erected at Kilometer 0 – renamed Ground Zero after initial skirmishes between demonstrators and police. Then came rows of police and security. Beyond these, the last line of defense: men with long steel rods that could inflict great bodily harm on anyone who made it that far. More wire mesh barricades and checkpoints were scattered between Ground Zero and the Convention Center.  

But the "Cancun Collapse" wasn’t another "Battle of Seattle." More than for its protests, the most recent WTO talks will most likely be remembered for a farmer’s suicide and developing countries successfully standing up to the bullying of the US, European Union and other developed countries.  

There were creative protests both inside by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and outside on the streets by farmers, indigenous peoples, workers, students, and anti-capitalists. In one case, a huge banner was unfurled in the air by nude climbers across from the Convention Center. The words, "Que se vayan todas"(Throw them all out), could be seen by the delegates and anyone else who entered the meetings. All of this demonstrated the broad opposition to current global economic governance. The combination of inside and outside actions pushed the WTO over the edge, giving developing countries a supportive climate in which to take a stand.

Inside and Outside

The most startling act of resistance involved the former president of the South Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, Lee Kyung-Hae. The 56-year-old father of two climbed to the top of a police barricade and took his own life. His suicide led to the cry that was heard throughout the rest of the meeting: "The WTO kills farmers!"

Another dramatic street action occurred outside of the convention center when, despite formidable barricades and check points that made the movement of large numbers virtually impossible, hundreds of people emerged from nowhere to block traffic for two hours. On the other side of Ground Zero, two marches, thousands strong, were stopped at the police barricades. In both instances, people symbolically and defiantly pulled the barricades down.

Inside the convention center, "guerrilla media" stunts occurred constantly. The memory of Lee Kyung-Hae was honored in most cases. After Greenpeace activists protested genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by dumping corn on the desk of Deputy US Trade Representative Peter Allgeier and a disgusted US Department of Agriculture Under Secretary, J.B. Penn, NGOs were banned from press briefings.  Seconds after calm was restored, others stood up in the crowd with signs that read, "WTO kills farmers."

On September 14, the talks collapsed. Angry and frustrated, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Cancun’s most visible "ugly American," addressed the press that afternoon. He put the blame on the developing countries, refusing to admit that the thick-headed insensitivity he and other bully-boys from the developed world had shown contributed to the collapse.

Activist and author Starhawk, one of the US activists who organized in Cancun, remarked, "To understand the depth of this victory, we need to think back to the political climate just four years ago, before the Seattle ministerial. At that time, the WTO and the forward march of neo-liberal policies seemed unstoppable, and to question them at all was to ally with flat-earthers and others who just didn’t get progress. Now, the most ambitious institution of globalization, the WTO, has been stopped in its tracks."

Back at Home

While protests raged in Cancun, 400 people gathered in Point Richmond, California for a solidarity action.  They expressed opposition not only to corporate globalization, but also to war and the destruction that oil visits on communities and ecosystems.

Point Richmond is on the frontline of the oil wars. It is home to Chevron Texaco’s refinery, where the first shipments of Iraqi oil are being processed.  Local residents, who have spent decades fighting Chevron’s toxic legacy in their own community, had vowed to prevent the processing of Iraqi oil.

The action was coordinated by Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW), a community-based mobilization that organized the 20,000-person shutdown of the San Francisco financial district in response to the US invasion of Iraq. DASW has highlighted the links between US corporate interests and Bush’s empire building.

"The global justice movement is evolving into true post-issue activism with the ability to incorporate single issue struggles into a larger framework of challenging the empire," explained Patrick Reinsborough, a San Francisco-based organizer and co-founder of the smartMeme project. "People all around the world are resisting and understand that US militarism and corporate globalization are two sides of the same bloody coin of the doomsday machine that threatens us all.

"Increasingly, US activists are realizing we are the ones who can implode the empire from within by linking struggles against war and corporate globalization with the ongoing community struggles for economic and racial justice against the war at home," he continued. "The world is waiting for us to create a true democracy movement inside the US that has the power to roll back US dominance of the world."

On to Miami

From November 19-21, trade ministers from 34 countries will meet in Miami, Florida to continue negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an agreement intended to extend the NAFTA model of corporate globalization throughout the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska to Chile’s Cape Horn.

From NGOs and labor groups to anti-capitalists, people are organizing marches, rallies and non-violent direct actions against the FTAA. Hundreds of thousands of ballots opposing the agreement, collected throughout the hemisphere, will be delivered to the delegates.

United for Peace and Justice, one of the major anti-war groups that organized US resistance prior to the invasion of Iraq, has issued a call to action. "The failure of the WTO makes regional trade agreements such as the FTAA the leading edge of the Bush Administration’s corporate global policy and reckless drive for empire," it states. "This is the same drive that led to the pre-emptive war on Iraq and lies behind the ongoing assault on civil liberties and immigrant rights in the US.

"To defeat this empire-building agenda, we must unite against economic domination and military aggression and struggle together for a world rooted in cooperation, sustainability, dignity, respect, and peace."

Organizers are also incorporating ecology into social justice work. Actions in Miami may reunite the teamster and turtle alliance that the "Battle of Seattle" brought to the forefront. Miami may even see an Eco-Bloc, an attempt to connect global justice and ecological sustainability. First attempted in September, 2002 during protests of the World Bank and IMF in Washington, DC, it was lead by Oscar Olivera, a Bolivian who fought against water privatization in his country.

Efforts to build an ecological analysis and resistance into the global justice movement moves environmentalism beyond a single issue focus. Ecology, based on the assumptions that everything is interconnected and that diversity builds strength, provides a fresh template for organizing. The broader and more diverse our movement becomes, and the more it looks at underlying causes of problems, the more effective it will be.

Millions of people are looking for ways to roll back corporate globalization. As the world’s political and trade leaders meet in isolated enclaves, surrounded by fences, guarded by police and soldiers, new tactics are being combined with old. The call for a broad-based and varied movement has been renewed. In addition to staging mobilizations and mass marches, we must think outside the box. If barricades are erected around elite meetings, perhaps it’s time to creatively confuse the authorities, marching in other directions, targeting other symbols of corporate globalization, diversifying the movement and connecting the dots of resistance. 

It is also essential to build alternatives and truly educate on a community, grassroots level. Our lives and our planet must be reclaimed from the "global machine that feeds on blood and defecates in dollars." Another worldview is not only possible, it is absolutely necessary.

As Patrick Reinsborough puts it, "Now things get interesting."