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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Cancun - Whose Setback and Whose Opportunity?
Michael Youlton • 18 September 2003

In a keynote article in today’s Irish Times (Sep. 18), Peter Sutherland, a former Attorney General and former director-general of the GATT and the WTO, laments “the failed ministerial conference in Cancun”. It was, he says, “a setback for all those who see the…trading system as one of the principal vehicles for global growth and development”.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The World Trade Organization, the international free trade body whose ministerial talks collapsed last weekend in Cancun, Mexico, was never intended to be hampered by consideration of the concerns of the world's poor.

A group of over 20 poor nations from the South, the G22 as they call themselves, led by its largest and most vital economies -- particularly Brazil, and including India, Mexico, and new WTO member China -- (representing over 80% of the world’s farmers) blocked the U.S. and the EU from imposing yet another round of trade agreements, this time regarding agricultural products and investments, that would have helped cement the widening economic imbalance between rich and poor. International trade is worth $16 billion a day but the 49 underdeveloping countries account for less that half of 1% of that – and even that miniscule share has declined sharply over the last 20 years.

Until the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle, rich countries, particularly the U.S., pretty much called the shots in the WTO, a trade organization begun in 1994, largely founded through U.S. efforts, and dedicated to bringing NAFTA-style trade practices to the world. Large corporations from the U.S., Europe, and Japan could take advantage of cheap labour in the dominated countries, and sell their products there by undercutting smaller indigenous industries. Countries like the U.S. may lose jobs but get lots of cheap stuff. Poor countries would lose local jobs, and then compete with each other in a race to the bottom to see who could offer global corporations the lowest taxes, least environmental or worker safety laws, and cheapest, most submissive labour forces.

In Seattle, protests that had been erupting for a decade in countries like India and Indonesia astonished the world by coming to a wealthy, comfortable city in the North. Once the meetings started, a group of African delegates took the protesters' message to the ministerial talks themselves -- blocking destructive new agreements.

Two years ago, the next WTO ministerial meeting was held in Doha - in the feudal oil kingdom of Qatar -- with the entire country closed off to those annoying protesters. Not much happened in the meetings themselves, as the U.S. and E.U. were primarily concerned with making sure an agreement, any agreement, could come out of Qatar to convince the world that the WTO was still a going concern. The promise there was that the following two years would be ‘a development round’. Small-minded obstructionism in Geneva put paid to that pious wish. The farce around the recent confrontation on essential medicines for the treatment of HIV/Aids is an example of what development implies for the rich countries.

This year, in Cancun -- a posh island resort even more closed off than usual to ordinary Mexicans -- the substantive matters could be put off no longer. The U.S. and E.U. wanted a new agricultural agreement that would remove trade tariffs -- even as U.S. agribusiness, for example, continue to receive massive farm subsidies and "price supports" from the federal government or European, Spanish, French and including Irish farmers from Brussels. Large corporations now dominate American agriculture, having all but extinguished the family farm over the past 20 years; they have now also nearly destroyed Mexican agriculture thanks to NAFTA, dumping cheap corn and other commodities in the Mexican market and driving the prices so low Mexican farmers cannot sell their crops and make enough money to survive. In Mexican states like Michoacan and Guerrero, whole rural villages are abandoned, their former residents gone either to the city or the States in a desperate search for a livelihood. In Ghana, a country once self-sufficient in poultry, providing a steady income for 400,000 chicken farmers, the IMF recently pressurised the Government to drop a proposed import tax on chickens. As a result, in 2002 23,000 tonnes of frozen birds, including from the 6 and the 26 Counties, invaded the Accra supermarkets – another dumping ground. Chickens with guns – as the protest song has it!

No wonder, the Irish Minister of Agriculture who was in Cancun, was determined, as he put it, to save Irish jobs. During the same year 2002 Bush announced tariffs of up to 30% on imported steel in a move to appease America’s troubled steel industry. The IMF did not intervene there.

This is the future that the U.S. and Europe want for the farms of the rest of the world. And in the wake of Seattle and the rift that has never been closed since, the refusal by the people of poor countries to go along now threatens the very existence of the WTO. The U.S., in particular, created the WTO; if the WTO doesn't do what the U.S. wants, the WTO ceases to be a "useful" institution.

European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, whose closing speech as the Cancun talks disintegrated was tinged with bitterness and whose career was supposed to have been crowned with a ‘deal’, blasted the stalemated organization and the structure that made the Cancun rebellion possible. "The WTO remains a medieval organization," Lamy said after the talks broke off. Rep. Charles Stenholm (R-TX), one of the architects of the combined U.S./E.U. agricultural trade proposal, characterized the breakdown thus: "The WTO resembled the United Nations." And we all know what Americans and British think of the United Nations, where the great masses of unwashed poor countries have a vote just like the rich ones.

The U.S. would much rather have international trade decided on the model of the IMF or World Bank, which are more or less run on the one dollar/one vote principle. Lamy had it exactly backward -- medieval rule, at least in Europe, was generally the absolute power of kings. That's more the vision of what the E.U. and U.S. wanted the WTO to be than what it has become. “If the G22 persists, it will change the economic balance of the WTO” writes Peter Sutherland. A sad future for Peter!

This week's breakdown constitutes a tremendous victory for fair trade advocates, NGOs and many militants thousands of whom -- inside and outside the meetings -- had descended on Cancun to voice their opposition to the agricultural agreement and other proposals on foreign investment and competition being pushed by the E.U. and Japan. During the last dramatic Sunday of Cancun it became evident that no deal is much much better than a bad deal.

Inside the halls, Cancun was an even more dramatic victory than Seattle had been. No new talks were scheduled, and with their traditional dominance stymied, the U.S. may turn its attention elsewhere and abandon the WTO entirely as its vehicle for creating a global economic structure that helps corporations rule the world.

That process has already begun. Since the "disastrous" Seattle meeting, both the Clinton and Bush Administrations have been de-emphasizing the WTO, preferring to pursue the same policies of dominance through bilateral or multilateral regional agreements. The most important of these is the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposed pan-hemispheric free trade zone; the next scheduled meeting to continue FTAA negotiations comes in Miami next November.

In Miami -- as in Cancun, Quebec, Seattle, and cities and towns across the global South -- the drive by labour, environmentalists, anti-poverty activists, and many others to dismantle transnational corporate control of the world's economies will continue. And now, the momentum is all on the side of economic and social justice.

“Cancun cannot be forgotten or glossed over”, says Peter Sutherland’s epilogue, “…it can be turned into an opportunity”. Couldn’t agree more.




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Index: Current Articles

18 September 2003


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Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others
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Members of 32CSM and IRPWA Physically Assaulted by RUC/PSNI
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Report: Belfast Anti Racist Meeting
Davy Carlin


The Shadows
Carrie Twomey


DHSS Lives
Liam O Ruairc


Freedom and Democracy in Cuba Depend on Support for Dissidents
Vaclav Havel, Arpad Göncz, Lech Walesa


Cancun - Whose Setback and Whose Opportunity?
Michael Youlton


How Do You Like Your Elections - Fixed and Murky?
Toni Solo


Armed Struggle
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Republican Sinn Fein commemorates Robert Emmet


16 September 2003


In The Shadow of Fear
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Derry's Disappeared
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Bangers on the Blanket?
Kathleen O Halloran


Dialectics of Terror
M Shaid Alam


Prison Segregation
Republican Prisoners Support Network


Letter to the Chief Constable
British Irish Rights Watch


A Jackboot on my Presscard
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The Letters Page has been updated.




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