Reporter's Notebook from WTO Protests

The Real Cancun

Part 1: The March of the Campesinos

by Luciente Zamora

Revolutionary Worker #1216, October 19, 2003, posted at

RW correspondents Luciente Zamora and Nikolai García traveled to Cancun, Mexico to document a first-hand account of the protests against the World Trade Organization, September 10-14. The following is the first in a series of articles from the frontlines in Cancun.

I think of Lee Kyung Hae stabbing his chest with the blade of a pocket knife at the top of the 10-foot-tall metal barrier, six miles away from the conference hall of the World Trade Organization. He was a 56-year-old and a leader among Korean farmers, actively struggling against the forces bringing death and misery to his country. In a message before his death he said, "The pain of my sacrifice symbolizes the pain of all my brothers for whom I give my life today."

I imagine looking at the thoughts behind Lee's pained, yet defiant stare--and I can see a lightning fast slide show.

I see images of orchards and rice paddies in Korea, trees with wide-reaching branches... then gurgling rivers in Chiapas and Oaxaca, next to fields of organic corn . . .

I see images of peasants with the sad gaze of someone who has lost their home. They migrate from their villages in Brazil, Honduras, Korea, Mexico. Around the world, more than one million every week put down the tools they use to work the land to be tied to a machine in maquiladoras and sweatshops that are spreading like blistering boils all over the Earth.

I think of campesinos holding a banner "WTO Kills Peasants! Down With WTO." They look so powerful and determined. Anger boils through their veins. They are angry, but they are also searching. They are searching for the road out.

The life existence of every campesino, youth, student, woman and revolutionary that we met in Cancun represents a deep fault line. As I look back at the anti-WTO protests in Cancun, I can see the fault lines intersecting...


There have been extremely powerful demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in cities around the world. As different people planned to protest the September 10-14 WTO meeting in Cancun, things were undoubtedly following in this tradition. But something unprecedented was about to take place.

The WTO conference was going to be in Mexico, a country whose countryside and peasantry has been devastated and dominated by imperialism. Cancun, where the WTO meeting was to take place, was where two years earlier, 300 people were brutalized by riot police while protesting the World Economic Forum--exposing the brutality of the newly elected and so-called "democratic" President Vicente Fox. An already volatile mix of anti-globalization activists and students from around the globe were coming to protest in Cancun. And adding fire to this flame were thousands of angry campesinos from throughout Mexico, travelling thousands of miles to protest against the people ruining their lives.

We were excited to arrive in Cancun, but had mixed feelings about the city. Every travel package we looked through while making our travel arrangements showed pictures of smiling, blond-haired, blue-eyed tourists, swimming among dolphins and promising an unforgettable adventure. Our image of Cancun was informed by giant ads for a night of dinner, drinks, and dancing that littered the landscape once we arrived.

But as soon as we walked through the city, that image was instantly shattered by the real Cancun. We saw women dressed in traditional indigenous dresses, begging tourists for money or selling them hand-woven belts on the streets. We saw peasants from southern Mexico who arrive daily to the streets of Cancun, searching for work at construction sites--willing to sell their labor at any price. Local residents, many of them indigenous Maya, aren't allowed free access to the white-sand beaches. In Cancun a liter of drinking water costs more than a liter of gas. Services like clean water, sewers, and garbage removal are almost non-existent for the people who scratch out a living working in Cancun's fancy hotels or laboring as maids, taxi drivers, construction workers, or street vendors.

The real Cancun was nothing like the commercials we had seen for the movie The Real Cancun-- which filmed seven strangers having the time of their lives in a Spring Break party paradise.

Bienvenidos a Cancun/Welcome to Cancun

Campesinos, in buses packed to capacity, waved their straw hats and red bandanas, and raised their brown fists as they were greeted by the cheers of peasants and farmers from more than 33 countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, Haiti, Mozambique, South Africa, Japan, Korea, and the United States. Anarco-punks arriving in a caravan from Mexico City, pumped their fists out of bus windows. Another furious roar arrived along with students from UNAM (Universidad Autonoma de Mexico), as hundreds of rebellious and revolutionary youth from throughout Mexico chanted "Repudio Total a la Cumbre Imperial!" ("To hell with the imperialist summit!")

For weeks before the WTO conference, and especially in the days before the conference, authorities tried their best to isolate the protestors from Cancun's local residents. Television newscasts announced: " ALERTA! Vienen los Globalifóbicos a Cancun!" ("WARNING, Globalifóbicos are coming to Cancun!" Globalifóbicos is a name the government invented for anti-globalization activists who they say oppose capitalist "progress.") News stations called the anti-globalization activists violent. They aired long segments of footage from Seattle's 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in an attempt to scare the people in Cancun. They urged residents to stay inside their homes and avoid all unnecessary travel around the city or contact with "outsiders." Schools were closed.

In the hotel district, delegates of the conference, media, and hotel workers were required to carry a special identification with a photo and fingerprints to enter the area. In an attempt to discourage protests on the streets, the government allocated sports stadiums for forums and "alternative" conferences that were isolated from the conference site.

As the WTO conference's opening day approached, authorities were suspicious of everyone who looked like an activist, a university student, a campesino, or an independent journalist. Busloads of campe- sinos and students were stopped at checkpoints all along the highway entering Cancun. Several independent journalists were arrested for taking pictures of the Policía Federal Preventiva (Federal Police) rehearsing "police operations."

Marcha Campesina,10 de septiembre/Peasant March, September 10

Everywhere we turned there were signs of resistance. In hotel lobbies, groups of protesters chanted "Africa is Not for Sale" amidst the beats of drums and pounding feet. Koreans wearing "NO-WTO" khaki-colored vests walked in large groups among many other youth and campesinos wearing their favorite political t-shirts. All over there were slogans shouting from walls in the form of graffiti.

It was the morning of the 10th. La Marcha Campesina was only hours away. Everyone was in a serious and determined mood to set off and march to ground zero--also referred to as punto zero -- the site of the fence. A declaration written by campesinos stated that their purpose to march was to demand that the WTO not interfere with agriculture and that human nourishment not be subjected to trans- national corporations that are destroying the economy.

Everyone was busy. But it wasn't unusual to see people take a minute to look around and appreciate what was happening with a smile. Something beautifully powerful was coming together for the people and dangerously threatening for the imperialists. The commonality of peasants around the world was becoming clearer. The source of their ruin was also coming into focus. Landless peasants from Brazil walked arm in arm with landless peasants from Chiapas talking about their struggle. Mexican campesinos who have rarely or never been outside small towns shared snow cones with Korean farmers and talked about--with the few words some Koreans knew in Spanish--how their countries are being destroyed by the U.S. and other wealthy nations. Peasants from third world countries explained to small farmers from the United States how the U.S. is ruining their lives.

In the hours before the Marcha Campesina , as we walked along these different camps we saw people hurriedly dipping brushes in paint containers to touch up their banners. Organizers grouped their people into contingents. Activists did last-minute leafleting in the communities along the route of the march. Youth tied their shoelaces super tight and tied red flags to heavy wooden and metal pipes. Other youth helped each other tie drums around their waists. Volunteer medics piled shopping carts with bottled and bagged water and first aid supplies.

On any other day, on the green grass at the stadium, el estadio Beto Avila , you would have seen a shortstop catching a fly-ball or an outfielder running towards the wall in an attempt to stop a homerun. But on the day we arrived, aficionados of a different kind filled the stadium. The baseball field had transformed into a tent city of activists from all over Mexico and the world. Tents were laid out on every free space of grass. Bigger tents were set up apart from the main camping grounds as a space for people to have planning meetings for the protests that week, hold forums about peasant and indigenous issues, or as shelter from the scorching sun.

A nearby cultural center, La Casa de la Cultura , was decorated with Via Campesina's bright banners that read: "Globalize the Struggle. Globalize Hope." Via Campesina is an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations in Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. Peasants in delegations from all around the globe tied green scarves around their necks, as they got ready for the big march.

El Parque de las Palapas is a park located in a very populated tourist zone, a couple of miles away from Beto Avila stadium. Here other encampments were getting ready for the march.

Black flags and a banner with Carlo Giuliani's name hung from the trees that encircled the camp. This camp named itself the "El Campamento Carlo Giuliani" in memory of the youth who was shot by police and then run over by a police vehicle while protesting the G-8 Summit in Genoa in July of 2001. Most of the anarchist youth had traveled from Mexico City and refused to be intimidated by authorities despite the multiple police vehicles that followed them as they arrived in Cancun.

A vibrant painting on cloth of the Earth breaking free from chains--a symbol associated with the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement--immediately caught our attention. People were walking around wearing red and green t-shirts with the faces of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. "The Anti-Imperialist Camp" welcomed us inside.

Large, medium, and small tarps were strung together like a quilt to provide the people at the camp with shelter from the sun and rain. At the Anti-Imperialist camp, Maoist revolutionaries, campesinos, students from UNAM and other schools throughout Mexico gathered their materials for the march under the shade of a bright red banner that read "La Revolución es la Solución." Others made last minute preparations next to a banner with a drawing of a Palestinian youth throwing a rock at a tank and a colorful canvas with a picture of an Uncle Sam skeleton on top of a U.S. flag that had an image of a Nazi swastika blurred into it.

It was hot. Very hot. The sun burned through our sweat-drenched clothes and no amount of water was cold enough to cool us down. A Maoist from the camp said, in a comforting voice, "It's plenty hot and humid here, but the heat I feel the strongest is the human warmth of my compañeros. Now that kind of heat is cool! It's the warmth that comes from having a common enemy and uniting together in combat."

Llegada al punto zero/Arrival at ground zero

Once protesters reached el punto zero the Infernal Noise Brigade, a marching band from Seattle, drummed beats intensifying the determination of the protestors. A U.S. flag was thrown over the 10-foot-tall barricade and burned-- campesinos and students chanted "Fuera Yanquis de America Latina!" ("Yankees out of Latin America!")

Lee Kyung Hae, a Korean farmer participating in a 200-strong contingent, climbed to the top of the fence, pulled out a knife, stabbed himself in the heart and took his own life.

Lee had once been a prosperous cattle farmer. However, when shifts in international trade caused the import of cheap beef into South Korea and the price of cattle plummeted, Lee was ruined. By the time he came to Cancun, he had already participated in many anti-globalization protests and gone on numerous hunger strikes.

Word about Lee's death spread and things heated up.

Korean farmers, Mexican campesinos, students, anarchists from Mexico City, Mexican Maoists, and internationals grabbed hold of the fence and shook it with a tremendous force that matched the furious beat of their hearts. Once the protesters tore down a sizable portion of the fence the two sides--cops and protesters--lined up. A group of people managed to cross a few feet into the prohibited territory, into the hotel district. The police moved to immediately close the open breech, clubbed protesters, and threw them back to the protesters' side.

More protesters moved closer.

Shopping carts full of pipes, chunks of concrete, rocks, bottles, were rolled to the front lines. The crowd thrust forward. A youth asked me, "Will you excuse me for a minute?" and he pulled a concrete lid from the pavement. He rolled it like a bowling ball toward the police lines. Some youth took their red and black flags, folded them up and put them in their backpacks or back pockets so they could use the flag poles and pipes. Others gave the police shields kung-fu like kicks. At least one cop lost his shield and baton to the victorious youth.

A campesino from Veracruz explained that they just wanted to talk to the people making life-and- death decisions for them. He was patient and reasonable as he explained, "We wanted to talk with the people who are making the decisions, but they wouldn't let us in. That's why we broke through the barrier. At first we didn't want there to be violence, but we did want to talk with the WTO. They said `no.' Well, since they refused to let us pass, we brought down the fence."

Farmers from the Korean contingent talked about Lee Kyung Hae's death and said, "It's a sacrifice we're very proud of. There are few ways out. The WTO is bringing death to our agriculture and our peasants. It's almost impossible to survive in the countryside. His death is a message, a symbolic act of what our people face."

A campesino from Chiapas told us, "We belong to the land, not to the foreigners that want to fuck us over. Although they wage low intensity war against us--we are not going to let them continue. We will resist. The government wants to change the direction of the country. Well, the people also want to change that direction. There are two directions--either the government will win or the people will."

His friend agreed. "They want to ransack everything, but we won't let them. We will defend ourselves until the end. We are prepared for that."

The contrast was clear: Two sides. Two futures.

To be continued.Part II--Dos Rumbos/Two Roads: Voices from the Campesinos