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WTO Meeting Finds Protests Inside and Out

In Mexico, marchers denounce globalization as delegates challenge U.S.-EU 'duocracy.'

September 11, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CANCUN, Mexico — As thousands of anti-globalization protesters marched in sweltering heat, delegates at the opening of global trade talks were urged to spread the benefits of trade to poor countries or watch people in the developing world lose hope of attaining a better life.

The World Trade Organization's ministerial conference, being attended by delegates from 146 nations, is trying to fashion a new trade agreement that would reduce poverty and boost development in poorer nations. That goal was set at its last meeting two years ago in Doha, Qatar.

Although the group has made disease-fighting drugs cheaper to poorer countries, progress has stalled in the crucial area of agriculture. Farm subsidies by the United States and European Union totaling $150 billion a year shut poor countries out of the richest markets.

"Riding on the [meeting] are the hopes and expectations of millions of people around the world for a brighter future. We must not fail them," WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi told 1,000 delegates at this resort town's convention center.

A welcoming speech by Mexican President Vicente Fox was delayed when 75 members of public interest groups raised placards reading "WTO Obsolete" and chanted, "Shame, shame." After about 10 minutes, they left the hall without incident.

Fox then made an impassioned plea for liberalized farm trade rules to "vanquish the real enemy, poverty."

"We cannot restrict well-being to a few nations. We cannot risk a world marked by exclusion and injustice. We cannot postpone further the battle against poverty and marginalization," said Fox, who received a standing ovation.

Delegates representing developing countries challenged the dominance of the "duocracy," a term for the United States and European Union. The so-called Group of 21, which includes the world's most populous developing nations, warned that it would block any new agreement unless the interests of poor farm countries were addressed.

Sudan's WTO representative, Adil Alfaki, said the inability of his country's farmers to export their cotton because of trade barriers has helped the African nation's foreign debt rise by one-third -- to $20 billion -- since 1998.

"We have also sugar and [gum arabic] that we can't sell because the EU and U.S. pay [subsidies] to their producers," Alfaki said.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said the unity shown by developing countries sent a message to richer nations that "their version of the WTO is over."

"The defenders [of the status quo] will have to decide whether the WTO will be transformed or end up tanked," Wallach said.

Several miles away, about 4,000 protesters marched through the town and tried to knock down fences preventing them from entering the meeting area. Tight security, summer heat and high prices of accommodations in the area apparently deflated the numbers of protesters.

The march began peacefully but changed when a member of the Korean Farmers League committed suicide, stabbing himself in the chest after climbing a fence with a sign that read, "WTO kills farmers."

With 125 members -- the largest foreign contingent of demonstrators -- they rammed a fence with a colorful float, then set it on fire.

Later, 100 youths dressed in black masks and black shirts threw broken concrete and burning sticks at police. The crowd dispersed when the police drove up with water cannons.

Rafael Alegria, a Honduran farmer and head of Via Campesina, an international farmers' advocacy group, tried to pacify the demonstrators.

Perched on the back of a pickup truck, he said through a loudspeaker, "The farmers are not throwing rocks or sticks, we are throwing about proposals."

"The situation in the countryside is terrible," said Alegria, who grows beans, rice and corn. "The policies of the WTO and free trade agreements are filling the countryside with dead people and misery."

*

Times special correspondent Sean Mattson contributed to this report.

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