- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Protesters plan to descend on Cancun, Mexico, by the thousands next week in an attempt to derail World Trade Organization talks aimed at setting new rules for the global economy.

So far, most public calls are for peaceful protests, “teach-ins,” and other demonstrations against international trade rules, not a repeat of the violence that marked 1999’s “Battle in Seattle.” But protest organizers are not discounting some run-ins with authorities.

“We are expecting here some problems, but we don’t want this to happen,” said Arturo Mosso, a member of the Comite de Bienvenida Cancun [Cancun Welcoming Committee], a Mexico-based anti-globalization group that is coordinating with other protest groups.

Demonstrators took credit for the collapse of global trade talks in 1999, though the link is tenuous, according to some observers.

“The meeting in Seattle had failed before it began, but people got the impression [that protesters] had succeeded in preventing a new round from being launched,” said Hugh Corbet, president of the Cordell Hull Institute, a Washington-based policy group that supports liberalized trade.

The groups affected news coverage and drew attention to their views. “It will be much the same in Cancun. They will be holding discussions and seminars, but they will not have any effect,” Mr. Corbet said.

That will not stop them from trying.

“We want … to provide some alternatives and show that this [WTO-based] economic model is not working,” Mr. Mosso said. The committee, with staff in the Caribbean resort town since February, is working with a number of national and international anti-globalization groups to organize space and accommodations for protesters, he said.

Anti-WTO groups, only loosely affiliated, are hesitant to predict the number of protesters. Mr. Mosso estimated that at least 10,000 and as many as 25,000 could show up for the Sept. 10-14 meetings. Because Cancun is easy to reach and tourist-friendly, others expect significantly more.

Protesters want to show how it believes WTO rules erode workers’ rights, environmental protections and democracy while handing control to multinational corporations, according to a letter circulating on the Internet and signed by groups like the committee.

The United States and the WTO’s 145 other members see the organization as a way to create a rules-based trading system, to lower barriers to trade and to boost economic growth. The ongoing round of talks, dubbed the Doha Development Agenda, specifically call for measures to help poor countries access world markets, though progress in that direction has been limited.

The Cancun meeting is the most important gathering of the world’s trade ministers since November 2001, when officials met in Doha, Qatar, to start a new round of global trade negotiations. Cancun is an important milestone along the way to a January 2005 deadline to establish new rules for agriculture and intellectual property and numerous other aspects of global commerce.

Mexico’s government does not want any disruptions for the official delegates and businessmen who will attend. It is wary of groups that have tried to shut down WTO, the European Union, the Group of Eight industrialized nations, and other multinational meetings in the past few years.

“The Mexican authorities are doing as much as possible to suppress [protesters] … even to point of scrutinizing hotel reservations,” said John Thorn, North American regional manager for Annapolis-based IJET Travel Risk Management.

Mexican authorities have had hotels cancel reservations of some potential protesters, added visa requirements for conference participants, placed security forces at the airport since Aug. 20 to check documents, and have prepared security checkpoints, he said.

The measures should limit threats to personal safety and confine protests, he said.

“But the antiglobalization folks are quite tenacious. If there’s a way to protest, they are going to do it,” Mr. Thorn said.

The Mexican Embassy did not return calls seeking further comment on security measures.

The Mexican press has reported a “watch list” of 80 persons drawn up by Mexican authorities. Jose Bove, the French farmer who gained notoriety by wrecking a McDonald’s in southern France, is on the list, as are more legalistically inclined anti-WTO activists like Ralph Nader.

“I was disappointed they could only find 80 people who are opposed to the WTO,” said Tom Hansen, director of the Mexico Solidarity Network, a Chicago-based group that plans to protest in Cancun. Mr. Hansen reportedly is on the list.

Mexico also is a base for homegrown activists who are attuned to international trade issues.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a peasant-based movement out of the poor southern state of Chiapas, led an armed uprising Jan. 1, 1994, to coincide with NAFTA’s start, though the group’s agenda is much broader than trade.

A teachers union, joined by farmers and ranchers, late last year stormed Mexico’s Congress — on horseback — in part to protest NAFTA.

But logistics may prove difficult in Cancun.

The resort is easy to reach, but WTO meetings are on a narrow stretch of land with a single road lined by hotels on both sides. Protest organizers said the geography should make control easy for authorities.

“I don’t think [another Seattle] is going to be possible in Cancun. The meetings are held on that little strip separated by a lagoon and the ocean. There isn’t going to be access to that strip for anybody,” Mr. Hansen said.

In February 2001, a World Economic Forum meeting in Cancun attracted protesters, and police kicked and beat the ones they could catch, the Associated Press reported. A standoff blocked the main highway and brought much of the resort’s traffic to a halt until police charged through a barricade and surprised protesters, the AP reported.

“Given the track record of the last few years, violence is always a concern, but I see no reason to forecast trouble,” said Phil Twyford, advocacy director for Oxfam America, an antipoverty group.

“When violence happens, it tends to hog the headlines, but it is a tiny percentage of the people,” Mr. Twyford said, noting that Oxfam opposes property destruction and plans to protest peacefully.

The U.S. government is warning participating organizations to allow sufficient time for travel.

“Security will be extremely tight, especially in areas around the convention center,” the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said in an information circular.

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