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Welcome to the Concrete Jungle

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:

Cancún

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.

 

You could understand why the G-21 nations felt this way. There are 2 billion poor people in the world, and three-quarters of them live in communities that depend on agriculture. Yet even as their farmers are told that they should enter the “free” market, they’re competing with farmers in the developed world who receive $300 billion a year in subsidies — six times the amount those same countries spend on foreign aid. To put the issue simply, the average European cow is subsidized to the tune of $2 a day, more than the daily income of millions of Third World farmers. The suicide of Lee Kyung Hae wasn’t the random act of a disturbed man. He was embodying the anger and frustration of legions of Korean farmers who have found their whole way of life undercut by an onslaught of rice imported from subsidizing countries like the U.S.

And this may not even be the worst of it. One afternoon, I went to the Hotel Sierra to hear a panel on bio-piracy featuring Dr. Vandana Shiva, who was perhaps the Cancún meeting’s great opposition superstar. Fleshy, vain and brilliant, she never appeared without an audience hanging on her every word. (“I saw her on Bill Moyers,” a young activist breathlessly told me.)

Sitting before a sign that read “No Patents on Life” — it fell off the wall halfway through — Dr. Shiva and her fellow panelists explained how American and European corporations (with the help of their governments) are busily engaged in what one called “The Second Age of Colonialism.” Where the first age involved conquering entire countries and stealing their resources, this cunning new age simply involves taking indigenous life forms, claiming patents on all or part of them (sometimes just a microbe or specific gene) and then using intellectual-property trade agreements (known as TRIPS) to help enforce them: Monsanto sued Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser for a patent violation when a genetically modified strand of canola blew into his fields and began growing.

The patenting of living things clearly seems to violate any rational notion of intellectual property, if not of morality — a cell is not the same as a cell phone — yet hundreds of such life-patents have already been granted for things like a Peruvian worm that contains a microbe useful in killing cockroaches. Although many other patent requests have been denied — including the preposterous attempt to lay claim to the genetic makeup of traditional basmati rice — major corporations keep filing claims, in part to exhaust the money and time of groups like Greenpeace that oppose them. Indeed, at the moment, Shiva is taking a key role in fighting Monsanto’s recent European patent of a basic strand of Indian wheat called Nap-Hal.

“It’s absurd,” she said. “This wheat is the product of 10,000 years of farming by farmers and 100 years of research by scientists. All Monsanto did was buy the Lever collection of wheat. It picked wheat from the public collection and claimed it invented it.” And the absurdity doesn’t stop there. With the granting of such patents and the wealthy nations’ attempts to make such rights part of trade negotiations, we could one day reach the point where Indian farmers can be sued for planting the wheat that their families have grown for hundreds of years.

This is just one more reason why the Group of 21 — which represents well over half of the world’s population — drove a much fiercer bargain than it had in bygone years. These countries have realized that swallowing easy assurances about free trade or the glories of globalization is to drink from a poisoned chalice.

 

For a taste from that chalice, you need go no farther than Cancún City itself, which is such a perfect example of the cruel divisions of globalized capitalism that the WTO’s decision to meet there seems almost deliberately insolent. Thirty-five years ago it was just a dinky swamp town in the Yucatán. Now, after billions in government development money and foreign investment — the local water company is owned by the nice folks at Enron — it has become a terrifyingly efficient tourist destination that has made a small number of local people very rich, gotten a large number of college students very drunk, and left the majority of its nearly 700,000 residents still struggling to get by. The man who hands you the towels at your hotel can’t afford to eat at the nearby McDonald’s and isn’t permitted to go onto that beach himself — although he stares at it every day and it’s in his own country.

 

One morning I met up with local journalist Antonio Callejo, author of a sharp investigative book about the state’s corrupt former governor, who’d offered me a tour of the Cancún that the WTO (like most tourists) made a point of not seeing. Heading out past the seemingly inescapable signs of corporate encroachment — the Wal-Mart, the Carrefour, the Sam’s Club right across from an encampment — we soon found ourselves on the road to Merida, where Antonio briefly paused to point out Plaza 21, the local “tolerance zone,” which means exactly what you’d think. Here, at clubs like Samurai Cabaret, those with a few hundred bucks can enjoy lap dances (and more) with tall blondes imported from Eastern Europe. If you have money here, everything is negotiable.

Moments later, we were traveling through neighborhoods that were all dusty roads, tiny liquor stores, and small shacks that make Elvis’ birthplace look like Aaron Spelling’s house. Scrawny dogs were, of course, everywhere, as were children in ratty clothes. The water here runs sporadically, if at all. If these locals were sly, they stole electricity from the main power lines, wrapping their illegal wires around tree branches and running them into their houses; if they were enterprising, they moonlighted, like the butcher I met who also worked full time at Wal-Mart for $500 a month; if they were lucky, a bus stop might be a short walk away. Many of the residents of these huts work in the tourist industry, commuting two hours a day each way from the Hyatt or the Burger King in the Zona Hotelera. And these are comparatively prosperous souls compared to the corn farmers who come to town because subsidized imports have collapsed their prices or the tens of thousands of Mayan workers who leave the countryside in search of day labor and wind up staying in tiny, slat-walled cuarterias, which are closer to animal pens than proper housing.

“Cancún is the number-one suicide place in Mexico,” Antonio said, sounding unsurprised by this fact, and I thought of Mr. Lee toppling off that fence, a struggling farmer like so many of these city dwellers had once been.

Of course, much of what’s wrong with Cancún has nothing to do with globalization and everything to do with the timeless workings of corruption and greed. The mayor, Juan Ignacio Garcia Zalvidea, known as Chacho, owns one of the tourist hotels, and is not widely admired for his concern over the plight of ordinary people. “He is in the Green Party,” one local told me, laughing, “but it is the green of money, not nature.”

One could tell this just from looking around. Like so many cities in the developing world, Cancún is well on its way to achieving an astonishing level of ugliness — polluted, overbuilt, impastoed with angry graffiti. This is known to be the most carefully planned city in Mexico, yet it’s not just a human disaster, but an environmental one, too. “When a businessman sees a tree or beach,” says Tulio Arroyo, an activist with the group Ombligoverde (Green Navel), “they think they must build something there.”

Curiously, the same logic also appears to be true of the tourist strip, which, in its own tacky way, is a classic example of how run-amok corporate money can leave a place wholly denatured. Although the Zona Hotelera is blessed with the white beaches and turquoise waters you would find in paradise, it has been turned into a No Culture Zone designed to let foreign tourists enjoy the tropics without having to endure anything of Mexican culture, or any real culture, for that matter. It doesn’t even have the wit or imagination you find in Las Vegas or Disneyland, whose attractions at least pretend to be someplace real. Here, even the Lonely Planet Guide is reduced to talking about Carlos ’n’ Charlies.

 

In one of Kafka’s most famous parables, leopards break into a temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry. This happens so frequently that the leopards’ arrival can be counted on beforehand and they become part of the ceremony.

The same is largely true of anti-globalization protests in the wake of Seattle. By now, globalifóbicos are the familiar leopards at the meetings of the big administrators of globalization, and though what the protesters do has undeniable political importance, it has come to feel predictable, even obligatory. And everybody is now prepared for them. The city of Cancún set aside space for protesters to stay (at the Beto Avila baseball stadium), erected that big orange fence, and deployed hundreds of cops and soldiers to make sure the globalifóbicos stayed nonviolent, lest they tarnish Cancún’s image as a tourist haven. Media teams spent hours watching the other Koreans (more hara-kiri?) and recording small bits of mayhem that everyone knew would inevitably become the event’s keynote visual imagery. After all, it’s the demonstrators, not the ministers, who dominate international newscasts and grace the cover of the world’s front pages. Without them, most people wouldn’t have a clue that the WTO was meeting, let alone know that anything important was at stake.

 

In the weeks before the meeting, the right-wing press had been spooking the locals with visions of bloody-minded masses turning Cancún into another Seattle, if not another Beirut. As it turned out, the protests proved small and rather tame, and the Mexican police almost scarily calm. The city walls were sprayed with anti-capitalist graffiti, demonstrators occasionally blocked traffic, and there was the de rigueur shattering of a famous-logo window — in this case, that of Pizza Hut. One sunny afternoon, three young protesters climbed a 200-foot-high crane in the Zona Hotelera to hang a banner and cheerily flash their naked privates to stop the juggernaut of globalization. Yet even this enjoyable display of high spirits felt slightly pro forma, uninspired.

“They were grinding it out,” Tom Hayden said of the protesters on the plane back to L.A. “I don’t mean this as a criticism. Sometimes you’ve got to do that.”

Indeed, the only real surprise came from Lee Kyung Hae, whose public self-martyrdom made him a hero back home and laced the tedium with tragedy. Not that this mattered to the cynics, who quickly began joking about his lack of PR savvy. “If you’re going to commit suicide,” one reporter said to me, “you’ve got to put out a press release in advance so everybody will be there. After all, you only kill yourself once.”

Quite true. The poor man simply didn’t understand the media.

The protest organizers did, and they neatly turned Saturday’s culminating demonstration into a grand gesture designed for the international media. It began with a march in the city center, a carnivalesque romp complete with a looming float of a Mayan water god, syndicalistas chanting union slogans, a drum squad pounding out a relentlessly jaunty rhythm, and scores of young Mexicans clad in the motley garb of a Mad Max movie. What headgear! There were hardhats and motorcycle helmets, balaclavas and bird masks, bandannas and touristic straw hats Magic Markered with anti-capitalist slogans. An Italian TV cameraman fought the intense heat by wearing nothing but low-cut Cassini briefs and running shoes.

While the locals looked on in bemusement, all these thousands of protesters made their way to the orange steel fence that for days had been separating them from the WTO delegates. Over the next two hours, a group of women and Korean farmers used metal shears and ropes to tear down part of this barricade — a purely symbolic act designed to be captured by the media. Although there was no hope of these protesters actually breaking up the WTO meeting, they could at least present the world with images of their defiance: If you put up a fence, we will tear it down.

And in Cancún this September, such a symbolic statement was probably enough. For back at the convention center, the Group of 21 was also showing its defiance. On Sunday, these nations walked out of negotiations, bringing the WTO meeting to an abrupt end with no new agreements, and leaving the rich nations grumbling that their globalization agenda was no longer following the correct timetable. For them, the meeting was a terrible failure.

But for others it was a badly needed triumph. Hearing this news, the globalifóbicos in downtown Cancún cheered and engaged in a spontaneous dance that, like virtually everything they did during the WTO meeting, was captured by far too many cameras.

For my part, I was happy to see that, this time anyway, the poorer nations stayed together and didn’t let themselves get rolled — or steamrolled — by the richer ones. At least they didn’t lose. Then again, they didn’t win anything either. All those poor farmers who hoped for some sort of relief from unfair competition got nothing, proving the wisdom of the woman in the Dylan song who knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.

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