The WTO Meeting in Cancun: Failure or Success?

The Quaker Presence in Cancún

In September 2003, thousands of government officials from 148 countries descended on the Mexican beach resort of Cancún for a high-level meeting of the World Trade Organization. Thousands more came: representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, advocates of particular issues, and opponents of the entire thrust of globalization.

About a dozen participants from four Quaker-related organizations—Quaker UN Office-Geneva, Quaker Peace and Social Witness in the UK (QPSW), Canadian Friends Service Committee, and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—were among them, following the negotiations as they unfolded, and networking with others working on trade-related issues.

The U.S. media paid little attention, perhaps because no high-level U.S. official was present, and it wrote the meeting off as a failure. Most of the rest of the world saw Cancún as a significant event—as attested by the presence of 2,000 accredited journalists sending reports day and night from computers on the ground floor of the convention center, where the ministers met.

According to Brewster Grace, who recently stepped down from QUNO-Geneva, which he headed since 1993, the WTO is one of the most important institutions dealing with current world issues of economic justice. Other Quaker-related NGO representatives present in Cancún came from a variety of programs: Tasmin Rajotte of Canadian Friends Service Committee, who works to articulate connections between aboriginal peoples, the environment, and international relations; AFSC Central America staff member Tom Loudon, who works with Central Americans opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement being imposed on them by the United States, which they believe will hurt small farmers; and AFSC New Hampshire staff member Arnie Alpert, who, by making global connections particularly with labor, has organized around the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

Although the WTO was founded in 1995, many people first became aware of it in 1999 when a similar ministerial-level meeting in Seattle encountered massive protests, thus shining a spotlight on its previously unscrutinized proceedings.

The overall aim of the WTO is to reach a single framework of rules for trade and trade-related activities. Ongoing work is done by permanent national trade delegations in Geneva leading to biennial ministerial meetings like Cancún at which trade ministers seek to sign a text reached by consensus, thereby enabling negotiators to take further steps. The Cancún meeting was part of the "Doha Development Round" of negotiations, launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001. Before the impasse at Cancún, the entire process was supposed to come to completion by January 1, 2005.

Upon arrival at Cancún, I immediately got a feeling of "inside" and "outside." Buses from the airport completely bypassed the city and took us out on a causeway and then approximately 15 miles along a reef with seemingly endless large hotels, punctuated by malls and convenience stores, to the other end of the reef where the ministerial meeting itself was held.

The inner circle of the event was on the upper floors of the massive convention center, vaguely shaped like a Mayan temple, which was closed off to all but the official delegation members. The next ring was accessible to those with badges as NGO representatives or journalists; they could attend press briefings, and they held many parallel events in neighboring hotels. The outer ring of the thousands without badges were restricted to the city of Cancún. From there they could see the hotel district about six miles away, but the direct road out to the hotels was blocked by Mexican police during most of the week.

As accredited NGO participants, the members from the four Quaker organizations moved back and forth from "inside" to "outside," reflecting the kind of program work that had gotten them involved in trade issues and the standpoint of the people with whom they were working.

Intellectual Property

As part of a two-day seminar attended by NGO representatives and some members of official delegations, QUNO led a session on intellectual property. This phrase conjures up pirated CDs and videos in the popular mind, but it also encompasses matters like pharmaceuticals and patents of all kinds. QUNO involvement in the issue began almost a decade ago, when QPSW (then known as "Quaker Peace and Service"), while working with farm groups in India and Southern Africa, became aware that major agricultural seed companies were conducting research, creating new varieties and even patenting seeds.

This raised ethical questions: Would farmers who traditionally saved their own seeds become dependent on these products? Was this a privatization of traditional knowledge? Is it right to patent life forms?

After months of inquiry, QUNO and QPSW opted to work on the "Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights" (TRIPS) negotiations in the WTO context, because the decisions could have a great impact. The permanent trade delegations of governments in Geneva were becoming increasingly aware of the issue in their negotiations, but their resources were and remain quite limited. (As someone asked at the QUNO-organized session in Cancún, "How can a country in Africa that can’t fully staff its elementary schools be expected to have a high-quality patent office?")

London researcher and freelance writer Geoff Tansey, who had been working with QPSW, was commissioned to write a paper. "It was an instant bestseller with the developing country delegations because it helped focus their thinking on where the problems lay in the TRIPS agreement," according to Brewster Grace. Meetings at Quaker House Geneva and residential seminars in the Swiss countryside helped developing country negotiating teams acquire detailed knowledge of legal and technical issues surrounding the
TRIPS agreement and the convention on biological diversity.

In 2001, during the buildup to the meeting of ministers at Doha, QUNO work shifted toward the health-related aspects of intellectual property with strong encouragement from African Quakers. QUNO-Geneva worked privately with key government delegations who were seeking to prepare a ministerial declaration in favor of enabling hiv/aids patients in poor countries to get access to antiretroviral drugs in generic form. Brazil and some other developing countries had already begun to manufacture such generics over the strenuous objections of large pharmaceutical companies and the United States government. Two specialists on TRIPS played key roles as consultants to QUNO, assisting developing countries draft legal text for a Ministerial Declaration in Doha that strengthened flexibilities for them in TRIPS. The Declaration allows developing countries with major public health crises including hiv/aids to issue compulsory licenses to produce generic medicines and thereby overcome dependence on high-priced medicines patented by multinational pharmaceutical companies. The latter, not surprisingly, strongly resisted the Declaration at Doha.

According to Brewster Grace, this is "the classic story of how Quakers and other concerned NGOs can work in order to help bring important human rights issues, human issues, into trade negotiations." Rather than take on the entire WTO, QUNO had opted to take on a specific area, that of intellectual property, and devoted enough time to learn the technical intricacies of the area. That was important in order to come up with a legally secure text. The seminars and other activities also enabled developing country delegations to forge a sense of unity around their common experience and needs.

The ministerial declaration at Doha did not by itself get medicine to those who needed it. The countries most in need of the generic drugs do not have pharmaceutical industries capable of producing them. The proposed mechanism is that such a country will issue a compulsory license to make a contract with a company in a country that does have this capability, such as India. Again the pharmaceutical companies balked, claiming that such generics might end up being diverted and sold as contraband and end up in developed countries. Not until August 2003 on the eve of the Cancún summit was an agreement signed solving this problem, at least in principle. Meanwhile another estimated 2,000,000 people had died of hiv/aids in Africa. The United Nations Development Program and other international agencies are preparing to help six African nations issue such licenses and to help them with the infrastructure needed.

On the Outside

Cancún isn’t really Mexico," I kept thinking. It is a tourist bubble where wealthy people come for time on the beach, golf, a foray to Mayan ruins, nightclubs, and uninhibited behavior. They pay U.S. prices at U.S. chain restaurants, and can go to U.S.-style malls whose architectural style is a cross between Disney and Vegas. Journalists and scholars say that Cancún’s building boom reflects money laundering by drug lords. The Mexicans who cook and wait on tables in restaurants, manicure lawns and ornamental bushes, and manage hotels and clean the rooms commute each day down the causeway to Cancún. Water is brought from great distances to the hotel area, but, NGO representatives learned, communities only 30 kilometers away do not have a safe water supply.

In that sense, Cancún symbolizes the kind of globalization that critics around the world object to: a model of development that brings luxuries to some, while others remain deprived of basic necessities. These critics see this model being imposed by the rich countries, led by the United States and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the WTO. The effects can be seen in Mexico itself which ten years ago came under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Small farmers whose main crop could not compete with corn imported from the United States find their way of life threatened.

Generally speaking, those who were in Cancún without badges, and hence several miles from the meeting itself, were those objecting to this model. One of their slogans was "Our world is not for sale." They were not there to lobby for a particular position, but to register a protest and to halt—or at least slow—this type of globalization. It would not be correct, however, to see the critical presence as divided into docile WTO-approved NGOs "inside" and disruptive radical groups "outside." It is true that NGO representatives tend to be professionals who are familiar with luxury hotels with marble floors and miniature rainforests in their atriums, as one found in Cancún. But most of the NGO representatives "inside" were also sharply critical. At one session, for example, a roomful of fellow activists nodded in agreement with the Indian food activist Vandana Shiva as she ridiculed a globalized food system in which Brazil ships chickens to Europe or India imports high-priced tea.

On the first day of the conference, Mexican peasants and representatives of farmers, groups from around the world marched from Cancún to the police barrier at "Kilometer Zero" where the causeway heads out to the hotel zone. "The WTO kills farmers," said some, meaning that current policies and trade agreements are making family farms nonviable. At a moment of confusion and confrontation with the Mexican police, a South Korean farmer climbed up the 12-foot barricade, stabbed himself, and died shortly afterward. Over the next few hours and days, we learned his name—Kyung Hae Lee—and that he had been protesting because trade policies were making it impossible to farm in Korea. He had held a hunger strike outside the WTO office in Geneva and had had discussions with WTO officials. By the evening a shrine was set up, and 15 or 20 Koreans were holding a vigil there. To the WTO it was an awkward embarrassment, but for those "outside" it took on a growing spiritual meaning as the week progressed.

On the next-to-last day of the conference, marchers from various parts of Cancún converged and headed toward Kilometer Zero. Many paused at the makeshift shrine to Kyung Hae Lee with signs in Korean, Spanish, and English, and flowers and other tokens. With no apparent direction, groups of marchers made their way forward to a double metal and mesh barricade set up by Mexican authorities, with divisions that gave the impression of cages. Soon some of the demonstrators were cutting at the first barrier and pulling it down with henequen rope. Grey-uniformed Mexican police stood several deep on the other side, sweating in the humid tropical heat. As demonstrators tugged at the remaining barricade that would bring them face to face with the police, Arnie Alpert of the New Hampshire AFSC office worried: "Would the police come rushing through the breach, followed by their armored truck? Would they use tear gas or water cannons to force back the crowd? Would demonstrators rush through the fence?"

A young woman with a megaphone asked everyone to move back a few steps, sit down, and observe silence—and miraculously, they did so. "If it weren’t for the metal poles, masks, and slingshots," Arnie Alpert said, the demonstration looked like "a giant Quaker meeting." After a few minutes of silence, several speakers honored Kyung Hae Lee. They then led defiant shouts of "Down, down WTO." They said that their tearing down of the fence was a symbolic victory, and burned a paper WTO symbol.

Ricardo Hernandez, AFSC staff person for the U.S.-Mexico Border Program, spent most of his time "outside" attending "events on gender and trade, liberalization of services, labor and the WTO, the lessons of NAFTA." He said it was clear that people of the "global South" see the WTO as part of a larger whole. "They question the very nature of economic integration at the global and regional levels. . . . For millions of people around the world, trade and economic policies have meant more poverty, rather than improved living conditions."

The Negotiations Inside

At the most formal and official level Cancún was about a text. For months the Geneva-based delegations had been negotiating, and now the ministers were to decide whether they could agree on a single text that would then serve as the basis for the next stage of negotiations, aimed at concluding the "Doha round" by January 1, 2005. There were two key matters of contention: agriculture, and whether to move ahead on a series of new topics that in WTO shorthand were called the "Singapore issues."

In regard to the first of these matters of contention, a coalition of the developing countries maintained that with their subsidies the European and U.S. governments enable their farmers to flood the world markets with cheap agricultural exports, with which poor farmers find it hard to compete, and that the developed countries maintain barriers to the products of developing countries. The developing countries say they have lowered their tariffs but see little movement in return; quite the contrary, the $80 billion in new agricultural subsidies approved by the U.S. Congress in 2002 moved in the opposite direction.

When the draft text on agriculture presented a month before Cancún ignored their concerns, developing countries led by Brazil, India, South Africa, China, and Egypt responded by formulating an alternate text intended to be a basis for negotiation. The fact that the United States and the European Union ignored it stiffened their resolve, and soon it grew into a larger group of nations (eventually called the "group of 20-plus") with a common position. In Cancún, U.S. representatives belittled the group by repeatedly noting that the WTO included 146 nations, thereby discounting the fact that the "20-plus" countries represented 65 percent of the world’s farmers and half of world production. The U.S. delegation also used its muscle to try to pull countries away from the "20-plus"—and succeeded with El Salvador.

The actual sticking point, however, was the impasse over whether to move ahead on the Singapore issues of investment, competition, trade facilitation, and transparency in government procurement. Many corporations are seeing the poor countries as attractive markets in which to expand, e.g., to compete for government contracts. The poor countries, however, fear that they and their own business groups could be overwhelmed, and they have insisted that they need time to study various complicated issues.

They further pointed out that it had been explicitly agreed that these new areas would not be opened up without an explicit consensus within the WTO. The developed countries insisted on doing so, despite the fact that 90 governments of the world’s poorest countries (the "G-90 group") were opposed. They were unwilling to be pressured into dealing quickly with matters on which they did not have sufficient technical capacity. Various compromises were offered but consensus became impossible, and so the chair, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, suspended the proceedings.

A Kenyan delegate came walking onto the downstairs floor of the convention center with the news of the impasse on mid-Sunday afternoon, September 14, and soon the corridors were abuzz. "I’ve stopped sweating" said the Mexican activist Alejandro Villamar, smiling broadly. He expressed a widespread feeling that no agreement at all was better than an uneven one, or than covering over disagreement with well-crafted phrases.

At the first of several subsequent press conferences, representatives of Brazil, Egypt, Ecuador, South Africa, and Argentina, representing the "20-plus group" I felt I might be witnessing a significant turning point. They were not gloating but seemed to exude a newfound sense of power in unity that might augur a new turn, not only for the WTO, but perhaps in other world forums. I heard a similar note in a press conference of leaders of Caribbean island nations. In sharp contrast was the haughty attitude of the U.S. representative Robert Zoellick, who contrasted the "can-dos" with the "won’t-dos," whom he said had come to "pontificate." Robert Zoellick vowed that the United States would continue to pursue its goal of free trade through bilateral and regional agreements if the WTO proved unworkable.

(Later, at the Miami meeting in mid-November on the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, resistance from Brazil and other countries forced the Bush administration to settle for less than it hoped for. Again it vowed to pursue bilateral agreements with pliable governments.)

In view of the developing countries’ new-found bargaining strength in unity, Brewster Grace observed that, if Cancún was a failure, it was a "successful failure."

Phillip Berryman

Phillip Berryman has worked for American Friends Service Committee as a Central American representative (1976-81) and as an occasional consultant since then. He is a translator and writer in Philadelphia and an adjunct professor at Temple University.