Welcome to the Concrete Jungle 

John Powers in the land of no culture, surreal Cancún

Photo by Laura Rauch/AP

The saga of last week’s WTO meeting in Cancún begins and ends with a fence — the 9-foot-high orange steel barricade backed by riot police that protected the World Trade Organization from, well, the world. On one side was the Hotel Zone, a 13-mile spit of sand lined with scores of tourist hotels where the WTO staged its negotiations (as always) behind closed doors. On the other side was the Cancún City that’s never shown on MTV, a steamy, rundown sprawl officially known as Benito Juarez, permanent home to hundreds of thousands of poor people (including those who staff the luxury hotels) and the temporary gathering place of perhaps 10,000 anti-globalization protesters known as globalifóbicos.

At once a physical barrier and symbol of state power, the fence was always destined to loom large in the myth of WTO Cancún. But on Wednesday, September 10, it took on a surreal new dimension. A 56-year-old Korean farmer, Lee Kyung Hae, scaled the barricade and sat atop it in a checked shirt and silly sun hat, bearing a sign that declared “WTO KILLS FARMERS,” a point he soon made literal. Shouting to the sky, Lee pulled a cheap Swiss army knife, and to his compatriots’ shock, plunged it into his chest and fell from the fence. He died minutes later, even as many startled protesters still believed he’d merely cut himself on the barricade as he fell.

“The Korean is the only thing everyone will remember about the WTO meeting,” a Mexican activist told me the next day, and he was surely right. A banner headline on the conservative paper Diario de Quintana Roo screamed, “Hara-kiri at the WTO,” perhaps gearing readers up for the endless replays of Lee’s death on Mexican TV, which did not fail to show us that Lee had killed himself beneath a big sign that read:

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Bienvenidos, Welcome

If such coarse irony somehow fits the harshness of life in Benito Juarez, the sign’s sunny greeting seemed perfectly appropriate to the WTO’s stretch of the Hotel Zone. Inside the Centro de Convenciones, the sort of generic convention center you might find in Phoenix or Jacksonville, it was all pleasant smiles and air conditioning. The nomenklatura of world trade lead exceedingly comfortable lives, and here they were staying at hotels like the Westin, where the ocean waves came right up to the door, or dining at Lorenzetti’s, where a lobster dinner went for 60 bucks, two weeks’ salary for the maids who cleaned their rooms.

Of course, the WTO is desperately trying to spruce up its image. Ever since 1999’s Battle of Seattle, the organization has been obsessed with proving that, far from being secretive and sinister, it’s actually a bastion of progressiveness and democracy. Sure, it may convene in repressive places like Doha or hide behind thousands of soldiers on a Yucatán beachfront, but if you listened to its leaders in Cancún, you’d think they were in the benevolence business. They talked of helping the world through trade (“We are the driver taking care of others on the road”). And they spoke with such passion about helping poor countries that you wondered if you’d somehow stumbled into a socialist revival meeting. Even when a small band of protesters interrupted the opening ceremonies by chanting “Shame! Shame!” the bigwigs on the podium just smiled eerily, as if saying, Isn’t it splendid that we are so tolerant of the benighted people who disagree with us.

Of course, like so much of what happens in the hermetic universe of international diplomacy, this display of amiability was just an illusion.

Although the WTO makes decisions that are far more important than most elections — it can affect entire countries, even continents, for generations — merely to say its name is to see people’s eyes instantly glaze over. This was even true among the journalists in Cancún, most of whom found the meeting punishingly dull. One jocular Latino journalist kept muttering, “The WTO kills reporters, the WTO kills reporters.” Who could blame him? Most of the action took place in private, and the negotiations were conducted in language so arcane that many smaller countries didn’t have a single lawyer who could parse the legal ramifications of what was being proposed. In trade negotiations, as in so much of modern life, power belongs to those who understand — and control — the fine print.

Still, it wasn’t hard to grasp the meeting’s big theme, a bitter game of hardball between the haves and have-nots. The rich nations (led, for once, by the European Union and not the U.S.) were fervently pushing proposals designed to open up poorer countries to greater foreign investment and de facto control — for instance, letting multinational corporations buy their banks or public utilities. In response, the so-called Group of 21, a bunch of less-developed countries headed by Brazil, India and China, decided they weren’t about to discuss anything new until Europe and the U.S. hacked away at the enormous agricultural subsidies and tariffs that serve to impoverish much of the Third World.

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