Protesters disagree on methods to shut down WTO meeting

Monday, September 8, 2003

CANCUN, Mexico -- As World Trade Organization ministers from around the world check into high-rise beach hotels this week, protesters meet in ramshackle offices and tent communities, fighting over how they will wage war against free trade.

The tangle of union members, Zapatista rebel sympathizers, anarchists, environmentalists and farmers cannot agree on protest tactics against the WTO, which they consider a mouthpiece for powerful nations and wealthy corporations.

But the 15,000 demonstrators expected to flood this Mexican resort agree on one thing: They want to shut the meeting down.

"We've been fighting over the goal in meetings all this week," said Jessica Pupovac of the Washington-based Rights Action, a human rights group. "Some people are flat-out scared of the Mexican police."

The 146-member WTO is striving to complete a new treaty meant to boost the world economy by further reducing barriers to trade. Yet, going into Wednesday's meeting, delegates have missed a series of negotiating deadlines and acknowledge they can only hope to cobble together a loose framework for liberalizing agricultural trade.

Most of the protesters here are peaceful. But the more than 200 groups here include Mexican activists who took several public officials hostage last year and sunk President Vicente Fox's plans to build a new airport outside Mexico City.

The situation could be reminiscent of the WTO meeting four years ago in Seattle, when clashes between protesters and police and arguments between WTO members helped sink the attempt to start a new round of talks.

While that was considered a major setback for the WTO, it gave birth to a global protest movement that has grown from angry e-mails between individuals to a complex network of nonprofit organizations and other groups.

In San Francisco, a handful of people have dedicated themselves to full-time activism, supporting themselves with donations collected through a so-called "Adopt an Activist" campaign.

While the amorphous movement represents a variety of causes, it is unified in its concern that unfettered capitalism is widening the gap between rich and poor -- and that multinational corporations wield too much power and need to be held more accountable.

"The lobbyists have sold the politicians some very expensive solutions," said Delight Stone, of Bend, Ore., who traveled to Cancun to work on an "eco-village," an environmentally friendly tent city set up in a soccer field facing a Wal-Mart store.

"We will pay for it. We just haven't gotten the bill yet."

The anti-globalization movement has had its ups and downs since Seattle.

However, the U.S.-led war in Iraq fueled a global peace movement that built upon the work of the anti-globalization activists and recruited new members.

The first big day of protests will be Tuesday, a day after busloads of activists arrive and a day before the meeting's official start.

The city has prepared for the worst, with workers clearing the resort of truckloads of loose rocks that could serve as ammunition for angry protests.

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