World Trade Organization Talks End in Failure: Behind the Collapse in Cancun

by Orpheus

Revolutionary Worker #1215, October 12, 2003, posted at

It was Sunday, September 14--the last day of the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, Mexico. An official of the U.S. delegation, Robert Zoellick, had just briefed the press that the WTO negotiations would continue--when it was announced that a number of poor countries were pulling out of the meetings.

In the hallways outside Zoellick's press conference in the Cancún convention center, a delegate from Kenya told the press, "It's over. Talks have collapsed and there is no agreement." A short while later the chair of the talks, Mexican foreign secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, officially closed the talks.

The Cancún talks had ended in failure for the U.S. and other rich countries that control the WTO. No new declaration would come out of this ministerial meeting.

Zoellick bitterly complained to the international press that "won't-do" countries had "used the tactics of inflexibility and rhetoric" and caused the talks to fall apart.

Inside the convention center, people from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sang and cheered. Celebrations broke out when the news reached the activists who had converged on Cancún. For days, thousands had filled Cancún's streets to confront the WTO. They had carried out determined protest at the police barricades that barred entrance to the hotel zone, where the WTO was meeting. Some protesters had disguised themselves as tourists to infiltrate the hotel zone and to pull off bold street blockades. Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae had taken his own life at the police fence in a political statement indicting the WTO policies that killed farmers. (See "Cancún Confrontation," RW #1213, online at

The collapse of the WTO talks was sweet victory for the resisters, and a setback for the U.S. and other powers.

Four years ago protests in the streets of Seattle forced a stop to the WTO meeting in that city. Now, the WTO and the global oppressors that run it are reeling from their latest setback in Cancún. WTO officials say they may not meet their January 2005 deadline to finish the current round of international trade negotiations.

U.S. officials are also worried about failure at the upcoming trade summit in Miami this November, where they hope to push forward agreements for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA would extend the disastrous effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to people throughout the Americas. (See "FTAA: Sweatshopping the Hemisphere," RW #1097.)

After Cancún fiasco, the Bush administration announced that they will pursue "bilateral trade agreements" with those countries willing to bargain with them--and that others will be left with nothing. Senator Charles Grassley, powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, warned that he would take note of the countries that "played a constructive role" in Cancún and "those that did not." These are blatant threats to punish those who don't play by U.S. rules.

The U.S. and European Union (EU), along with Japan and Canada, had hoped to use the WTO talks to further their project of globalized exploitation of the people and the resources of the poor nations. They hoped to start negotiations on new measures (which they call the "Singapore issues") to further increase their ability to gain majority ownership over key economic sectors and corporations in the oppressed countries. With the Cancún setback, the global bloodsuckers could not march straight ahead with these plans--and that's a positive thing.

At the same time it's important to examine the reasons for, and interests behind, the collapse.

A group of some 21 countries, the G21, had come together in an opposition bloc within the WTO. Headed by China, India, and Brazil, the G21 also included South Africa, Turkey, Colombia, the Philippines, Peru, and other countries. Officials from these countries walked out of the talks after it became clear that the U.S. and EU intended to start negotiations on the "Singapore issues" while continuing to refuse to make any major changes in eliminating agricultural subsidies in the rich countries (which mainly benefit huge agribusiness corporations).

A number of African countries also pulled out because there was no movement around dropping billions of dollars in subsidies to cotton farmers in the rich countries. Control of world cotton production, mainly by the U.S., EU, and China, has caused devastation to millions of farmers in West Africa.

Some within the movement against globalization said the Cancún collapse was an example of a new trend--where the poor countries unite and negotiate on a more "equal" basis with the rich ones. Some predicted that trade blocs by governments of "developing" countries may now make it possible to "democratize" the WTO--and even change the structure of international relations to create a more just global order. Some have spoken of a "new alliance" between anti-globalization activists, NGOs, and the "developing countries" to pursue this dream.

While it was good that the contradiction between the Third World governments and imperialist governments prevented a new WTO agreement, it's an illusion to think this is the road to fundamental changes in the world and real liberation for the people.

The poor countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa are not "developing"--they are, in fact, kept in a state of enforced backwardness and dependence by the whole system of global capitalism. (See the article from the AWTW News Service, "Another World Fights to be Born at Cancún.") And the governments of these oppressed countries don't represent the real interests of the masses--these governments are controlled by the elites in these countries who are tied to imperialism and participate in the exploitation of the people.

Look, for example, at India, where the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is led by extreme religious fascists. Among its many crimes, the BJP regime oversaw the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat state in 2002 by Hindu fundamentalists. The Indian state and ruling classes are known worldwide for their close cooperation with the World Bank, IMF, and corporations like Enron in dam projects that have displaced as many as 50 million people from the lands to benefit "development" that aids imperialism.

But if such governments are tied to imperialism and are complicit in the imperialist domination of those countries, why did they bloc together to counter the U.S. and EU in Cancún? The reasons for their actions are complex; but one important factor is the extreme rapaciousness of the U.S. and EU imperialists and how this comes into conflict with some of the interests of even the ruling forces in the poor countries--while these forces remain subservient to imperialism overall.

Another key factor is the mass uprisings against the WTO and capitalist globalization worldwide--in the poor countries as well as in the imperialist countries. The intense resistance to the WTO and globalization in general--along with the outrageous demands by the imperialists on the Third World governments--has compelled the leaders of those governments to mount some form of opposition to U.S./EU demands. At the same time, the worldwide resistance also gave these governments an opening to mount such opposition to the major powers.

Arun Jaitley, the head of the Indian WTO delegation, pointed to some of the pressures working on the governments of the G21 countries when he said, "For India, agriculture is politically very sensitive, economically very important, and socially very delicate. We have 650 million people who depend on agriculture for their livelihood."

The opposition by the G21 was clearly not aimed at overturning the current unjust world order. Already El Salvador has pulled out, Colombia has announced it won't do anything that would involve "confronting" the U.S., and India and others have made clear they are simply trying to get a better deal within the WTO and the framework of international relations as they stand now.

The lesson of Cancún is NOT that the anti-globalization activists must now get behind the negotiating efforts of governments like India, China, or Brazil and rely on these governments to stand up to the unjust global order. The real lesson is that the movement against capitalist globalization and world injustice must stand together with the broad masses of the world's people who have no stake in the WTO or the capitalist-imperialist system in general. Our joint hope for another world lies in our common struggle to get rid of the chains of oppression.