World Trade Organization Meets in Cancun, Mexico


     The last time that the WTO (World Trade Organization) met in Cancun, in 2003, South Korean Farmers and Fisheries President Lee Kyung Hai ( Kun Hai Lee in some news accounts) stood outside the police lines, shouted “The WTO kills farmers” and, using a blade, slashed himself to death in protest on opening day, South Korea’s Day of the Dead. The suicide victim had previously conducted a hunger strike in Geneva outside the WTO Secretariat headquarters in Switzerland. Three other supporters had tried self-immolation in protest, two of them successfully, at various WTO meetings. Hai was protesting the price-distorting agricultural subsidies of the European Economic Union and the United States. 

     In a discussion of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) policies in “Why the U.S. Should Question Europe’s Orwellian Farm Reforms” (7/25/2003, Sara J. Fitzgerald and Dr. Nile Gardiner for the World Heritage Organization) the authors state,” The CAP is a huge welfare system for a relatively small group of large-scale elite European farmers who will continue to prosper. They then dump excess food on Third World countries and put them out of business.” The article continued, “The French succeeded in blocking any meaningful reform of the CAP.” The reason for this becomes clear as we learn more about the substantial subsidies that French farmers collect.

     The meeting in Cancun in 2003 continued after Lee Kyung Hai’s suicide, but not without further protests. According to Tom Hayden of  (September 11, 2003), the Black Bloc, consisting of black-clad Mexican students, Europeans with black flags, some U.S. students, Koreans and members of Seattle’s Infernal Noise Brigade, held painted wooden rifles while trying to storm the wire barrier separating them from the Hotel Zone. They also played drums and chanted, which eventually yielded a rain storm in “the Snake Pit” (the translation of the name “Cancun” in English.) The barriers, set up at Kukulcaan Plaza and Bonampek Boulevards, was intended to keep the protesters at bay.

      This year in Cancun, there are men with machine guns searching cars, guards at the entrances to all hotels, and at least one large war ship and two smaller ships  moored offshore.

    We are here in Cancun, and whether we can move down the road towards the Hotel Zone  remains to be seen. An organization known as the OCA, or Organic Consumers Association, helped organize protests in Seattle against the WTO in 1991, culminating in what became known as the “Battle of Seattle” and no one knows—yet— if they will attempt to disrupt this meeting in a similar fashion. OCA National Director Ronnie Cummins described the efforts of the protesters as “presenting alternatives to corporate globalization.” (Among the concerns of the OCA are genetic engineering, water privatization, investment and social services privatization, and patenting of drugs and life forms.)

     To refresh the memories of those not that familiar with the WTO, it is an organization that was founded in 1947 ( Wikipedia.) The WTO seems to have been fairly quiescent during the following 50 years, settling only 300 disputes involving trade between nations in all that time. There was a Uruguay Round of meetings between 1986 and 1994 that caused a major revision of the 1947 GATT, or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade rules. This became the basic rule book for the organization, forged, as it was, of 60 multilateral agreements to regulate trade. Among the issues the group dealt with were: goods, services, intellectual property, dispute settlement and trade policy review. There was a system in place that involved sending disputes between nations about trade to experts, who ruled, through consultation. Or, failing that, disputes could be sent through a stage-by-stage procedure with the possibility of appeal to an arbitration panel.

     If you’re beginning to think that the WTO sounds as powerless as the United Nations, you’re getting the picture. You gather representatives from hundreds of different countries together, all with different agendas, and you try to get them all to agree on economic policy. Sounds easy….not.

    The WTO was somewhat revived in a meeting held in Doha, Qatar, in 2001. After  that, it met again in 2003 in Cancun and in 2005 in Hong Kong, China. Now, it is meeting once again in Cancun on April 14, 15, 16 (2008), and the militia are out in force to keep the peace, aided by ships moored offshore. An American tourist who took his son to the Omni Hotel to play golf on their 3-hole course today (April 14th, 2008) was turned away by men armed with machine guns. Offputting, to say the least.

     Any agreement that comes out of a WTO meeting has to be ratified by the U.S. Congress to take effect in the United States. This also sounds difficult. There was a “fast track” process that President George W. Bush had in place during his two terms, but it expired June 30, 2007. Now that “W”, the lamest of lame ducks, is on the way out, the odds are stacked against any progress taking place this year…if anyone ever really thought that was possible, given the nature of the WTO beast.

     Before the last Cancun summit of the WTO, in September of 2003, according to a July 25, 2003 article entitled “Why the U.S, Should Question Europe’s Orwellian Farm Reforms” by Sara J. Fitzgerald, Trade Policy Analyst, and Nile Gardiner, PhD the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics at the Heritage Foundation, it was important that “the U.S. (should) not be fooled by European masquerades.”

     Ms. Fitzgerald and Dr. Gardiner said in 2003, “Developed countries should travel to Cancun with a strategic plan to lower subsidies and tariffs in order to finish the Doha (Qatar) round on time. Without real change, much of the developed world will continue to be frozen out of the western markets and be consigned to further decades of poverty.”

     The same article went on to state, “Global agricultural liberalization is at a standstill.” The experts felt that the U.S. must stand with “the Cairns group,” a group of 17 developed nations led by Australia, “in advocating greater liberalization in the Doha round and pushing the European Union to make substantial cuts in farm subsidies.”

     Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The representatives of George W. Bush treated the Third World countries rudely (“thugs” was the term applied to Bush’s representatives by one writer) and, in addition to the dramatic suicide of the Korean farmer already mentioned, the Witherspoon Society Home Page described how the Kenyan Ambassador walked out, quickly followed by Am Bernal, the Jamaican Ambassador. One hundred and fifty other civil society folk from Venezuela, Nigeria, Kenya and Brazil followed those leaders and the meeting fell apart after three days. Simon Harris of an organization known as the OCA (Organic Consumers Association) wrote in 2003, “Cancun may very well mark the beginning of the end of the WTO.”

     On Saturday, Mexican Foreign Minster Luis Ernesto Derbez, its chairman, drafted a declaration that was rejected. The Indian Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley said of the Cairns Group members that they had “arbitrarily disregarded views and concerns expressed…”

     In addition to the suicide of the South Korean man in 2003 Cancun, there were thousands of  unionists, students, anarchists and others protesting and trying to scale the wire fence that separated them from the hotels where the meetings were being held.

     I ventured out tonight. Each hotel had at least five men wearing orange vests guarding the entrances to the various Hotel Zone hotels. My waiter told me that his car was searched by militia with dogs as he came to work at 6:00 a.m. and he added, “even the Big Bosses had their cars searched.” There is a large battleship and two smaller ships moored off-shore,  easily visible from my ninth-floor room. The cab driver tonight told us that it would get worse tomorrow, as more representatives arrive (last meeting in Cancun, there were 146 trade ministers in attendance.) The Omni, Hilton, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and various other high-end properties are all involved in the meeting(s).

     There is a rich versus poor, North versus South, developed nations versus developing nation fight taking place at the WTO meetings. If the Cairns group represents such nations as England, the European Economic Union, Australia and the United States, who speaks for the poor?

     “The weak are gradually acquiring a stronger, more skeptical voice. So much has been promised for globalization; so much not delivered.” Grieder went on to say, “The centerpiece of the document is farm trade liberalization.” Lately, the downtrodden poorer countries have been banding together in an attempt to stand up to what they view as the oppressive Super Powers and make that point. The counter-group to the Cairns Group  is a group  known as G20.

    This new trade bloc of developing nations has formed loosely around the People’s Republic of China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. The group members fluctuate. Many of the poorest nations continue to have little or no influence over the WTO proposals, so the walk-out of 2003 is not surprising in the context of verbal abuse and “thug-like” behavior towards them. William Grieder of The Nation (9/22/2003) wrote, in an article entitled “Why the WTO Is Going Nowhere, “In Hong Kong, December 13-18 of 2005, at a WTO meeting, a deadline was set for eliminating subsidies of agricultural exports by 2013. The proposal:  developed nations would open their markets to goods from the world’s poorest nations 2013. In keeping with the protests of 2003 at the Cancun WTO meeting, there were 2000 protesters outside the Hong Kong Exhibition in 2000; 116 were injured, 56 of them policemen

     The Guardian newspaper, on 9/17/2003 wrote, in an article entitled “A Message of Callous Indifference” that, “Rather than tackling the problems of their high agricultural tariffs and lavish farm subsidies, which victimize farmers in poorer nations, a number of rich nations derailed the talks.” Among those rich nations derailing the talks: Japan, Korea and the Economic Union members. As the article in The Guardian went on to say, “Any hope that the U.S would take the moral high ground at Cancun (in 2003)…was dashed by the disgraceful manner in which the American negotiators rebuffed the rightful demands of west African nations that the United States commit itself to a clear phasing out of its harmful cotton subsidies.”

     It is not just cotton subsidies, which are preventing west African nations from mark- eting their crop, that is a sticking point in WTO talks. As Margaret Thatcher wrote in her book Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (London: Harper Collins, 2002, p. 336), “The majority of the subsidies go to the wealthiest producers.  These subsidies benefit the rich while stealing opportunities from developing nations.” The recent (in 2003) U.S. Farm Bill increased subsidies to U.S. farmers by 70%.  The ten-year program would cost U.S. taxpayers $180 billion. Meanwhile, the chief beneficiary of subsidies from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (or CAP), established in 1962, is France.  French farmers received $10 billion dollars a year in subsidies in 2003, 20% of the CAP budget. Seventy per cent of CAP funds go to 20% of Europe’s farms.

     Meanwhile, with the sudden rise of $4 a gallon gas in the United States and the push for bio-fuels worldwide, Brazil, for example, is rapidly destroying its rainforests to plant soy beans and sugar. This not only means less food grown, it has vaulted Brazil to fourth place in carbon emissions, mostly because of  deforestation.

     The Soy Bean King of the World who owns half a million acres in Mato Grosso, Brazil, is Blairo Maggai, also the Governor of the province. Maggai says the bio-fuel boom is making him rich, but adds, in an April, 2008, issue of Time (“The Clean Energy Scam” Michael Grunewald, pp. 40 – 45), “People see the forest as junk. If you want to save it, you better open your pocketbook….” It irks Maggai that Brazil is criticized by nations like the United States, which cleared its frontier 125 years ago but continues to provide subsidies to its farmers.  Says Maggai in the Time article, “You make us sound like bandits, but we want to achieve what you have achieved in America.  We have the same dreams for our families. Are you afraid of the competition?”

     Maggai does have a point..

     Commentators like Zha Quiwen of the China Daily (9/16/2005) said, “Only a breakthrough on agriculture can possibly help realize the Doha (Qatar) development

promise that vast developing countries deserve.” He decried American and French reluctance to face down the powerful agricultural lobbies in their countries.

    On the official WTO website (, in an article written on December 4th, the WTO seems to agree, saying, “…the first step we need is for WTO member governments to agree at the Ministerial level by the end of May on the framework for cutting

agricultural tariffs, agricultural subsidies and industrial tariffs.”

     This goal sounds very worthwhile, but Simon Harris of OCA (the Organic Consumers Association), which helped organize protests in Seattle, has said, “Cancun (of 2003) may very well mark the beginning of the end of the World Trade Organization.” With nations like Brazil declaring, “If you don’t want us to tear down the forest, you better pay us to leave it up!” (Governor of Mato Grosso Blairo Maggai, Time “The Clean Energy Scam,” April, 2008, p. 45.) Like all politicians, it seems, Maggai wants his country to share in the lucrative subsidies currently being hauled in by the French, the Americans and other European Economic Union nations.

     Against this backdrop of continued inequity, set against the turquoise blue waters of Cancun, the talks will begin in earnest tomorrow, April 15, 2008. How good do you think the WTO’s chances of success will be this time around?