CANCUN, Mexico — World Trade Organization delegates yesterday began five days of meetings amid violent demonstrations by protesters hoping to derail the talks.
The meeting is the halfway mark for an ongoing round of global trade talks, but ministers must reach some agreements by Monday if they want to keep them on track. The ultimate goal is to help struggling economies.
Trade ministers from 146 nations met under tight security as antiglobalization demonstrators, hoping to derail the talks, camped in and paraded through downtown Cancun.
Antiglobalization activists, kept in check by police in riot gear and fences, chanted and beat drums as they blamed the WTO for hurting the poor and being undemocratic. Navy ships patrolled the turquoise waters off Cancun.
One South Korean activist climbed onto one of the security fences, protested WTO farm policy and then stabbed himself. The man later died, said Luis Ernesto Derbez, Mexico’s foreign minister.
Many groups are looking to re-create the outcome of 1999’s WTO meeting in Seattle, which ended in failure.
But delegates yesterday were largely able to ignore the protesters. They expect an outcome neither as dramatic as Seattle’s, nor as conclusive as talks that began almost two years ago in Doha, Qatar, to begin the ongoing round.
The Cancun meeting is officially a midpoint for talks scheduled to close by Jan. 1, 2005. But some definite agreements are needed by Sunday or the meeting will be considered a failure.
“To put it simply, we need to make practical progress on the series of tough issues we identified in the Doha declaration,” said Pascal Lamy, trade commissioner for the 15-nation European Union.
Publicly, trade ministers largely restated their positions on the meeting’s opening day, even as quiet negotiations are worked out behind closed doors.
“There is a lot of action going on, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing going on,” said Pierre Pettigrew, Canada’s trade minister.
Ministers are looking to strike a balance, sometimes between seemingly unrelated issues, like export subsidies on agricultural products and new rules that would govern investment by companies in foreign markets.
Success hinges on making new rules for agriculture that satisfy widely disparate trading partners, like the wealthy 15-nation European Union and United States, fast-developing China, Brazil and India, and poor nations like Angola, where more than 70 percent of the population works on farms.
Subsidies are especially problematic for developing nations, which cannot afford to help their own farmers. The government payments effectively lower prices on commodities and hurt the producers in nations where they are not paid.
The European Union, United States and Japan pay some of the largest subsidies.
Those three nations see a stronger trading system as a way to boost economies that have shown some signs of recovery.
“If we are able to achieve an ambitious package of market opening … there is the potential for raising the standard of living for millions of people, especially in developing countries,” said Peter Allgeier, deputy U.S. trade representative.
Ultimately, the meeting is billed as a chance to help the world’s poorest nations.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a speech to open the meeting, told rich countries they must reach an agreement.
“Your decisions can make the difference between poverty and prosperity, and even between life and death, for millions upon millions of people,” he said.
WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi said people would judge the conference based on choices to aid development.
“The eyes of the world are on this conference,” he said as the meeting opened.