Crumbling legitimacy

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

NEWSPAPERS in the Mexican seaside resort of Cancun routinely report hotel occupancy among the "vital signs" of the town, alongside temperature readings and the weather forecast. All through the Fifth Ministerial, occupancy rates were reported in the vicinity of 60 per cent. Despite a massive influx of trade delegations, their ancillary security detachments and a multitude of journalists from across the world, Cancun still had much to spare. It was a tribute to the capacious hospitability of Cancun, a town reclaimed from the sea as a pleasure spot for the rich and powerful from the United States and Europe, and given a phonetically more gentle and tourist-friendly appellation to supplant a traditional Mayan name that literally means a "nest of vipers".

The streets of Cancun bore simultaneous testimony to the fact that globalisation today is a process under siege. Cancun's main street, which runs a girdle around the town, was closed for traffic a substantial distance from the central habitations where the people who run the tourism infrastructure live. For the duration of the WTO meet, Cancun residents commuting to work in the town's ostentatiously wealthy hotel zone had to take the longer segment of the loop road, stretching a short commute of a few minutes to almost two hours.

Crowds of protestors began gathering in downtown Cancun from the early days of September preparing to storm the conference venue. Kept at bay by 15-foot high chain-link barricades and battalions of Mexican federal police and paramilitaries, the gathering of peasants, workers and dissident youth, kept up a steady refrain of music, drums, songs and chants. Everyday at an appointed time, the ritual of pulling down the barricades would begin. On the afternoon of September 13, the first of the barricades came crashing down around the time the "second revision" of the draft Ministerial declaration was being circulated among trade delegations. For onlookers of a pessimistic disposition, it seemed a metaphor for the weakening resolve of developing countries that had until then been putting up a strong front against the relentless pressures of the U.S. and the European Union. But as unfolding events seemed to indicate, the crashing barricades were more truly a metaphor for the crumbling legitimacy of the globalisation process.

Warships of the Mexican navy were deployed off the scenic beaches of Cancun as the Ministerial conference opened, and the spotless and well-scrubbed streets were smothered in barricades. After a few early confrontations between demonstrators and security forces, Amnesty International urged the Mexican government to "ensure the right of peaceful demonstration". The implicit reproach was heeded. Demonstrators were careful to avoid any provocative act that could summon a strong-arm response from the security forces. And the security forces for their part tightened the apparatus of restraint, confining the demonstrations to a safe distance from the conference venue while remaining attentive to the potential damage that could be caused to the country's global image by any violent repression of peace protestors.

Cancun is part of the Quintana Roo province on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. It borders Chiapas province, the epicentre of the Zapatista peasant uprising in the mid-1990s. Shortly before its scheduled opening, the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos weighed in on the WTO conference. He said: "This is a war. Let us hope that the train of death driven by the WTO will finally be derailed in Cancun... This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the people who think themselves the owners of the planet have had to hide behind high walls and their pathetic security fences in order to put their plans in place... This is a world war of the powerful who want to turn the planet into a private club that reserves the right to refuse admission. The exclusive luxury zone where they meet is a microcosm of their project for the planet, a complex of hotels, restaurants and recreation zones protected by armies and police forces."

The opening day of the conference saw its grimmest moment. A crowd of farmers and Mexico's indigenous communities, numbering in the thousands, marched towards the conference venue in a peaceful demonstration. Encountering a barricade some 10 km from Cancun's showpiece convention centre, a group of farmers from South Korea reacted with visceral fury. Storming and toppling the barricades is an old staple of street demonstrations. But few seemed to have anticipated the grim sequel, when Lee Kyung Hee, a former president of the Korean Farmers Federation, climbed to the top of the fallen barricade and stabbed himself in the chest. Swiftly taken to hospital, Lee was soon pronounced dead.

Lee had been in the forefront of farmers' struggles in South Korea all through the 1990s, undertaking hunger strikes on no fewer than 30 occasions. He had taken his case for a revival of the declining peasant economy to diverse parts of the world, and served three terms as an elected member of a provincial Assembly. His ritual suicide cast a pall of gloom over the Cancun conference, with top officials joining in with condolences and the South Korean government briefly considering pulling out its delegation.

Was Lee a martyr to the failure of the Doha Development Agenda to deliver on its basic premise? Or was he a troubled individual driven to the extremity of suicide by his own internal ghosts? There were different takes offered on these questions at Cancun's convention centre in the hours after his suicide. But the farmers of South Korea who have set up a shrine for him and lined up in their hundreds to pay homage, have obviously spoken their minds with rare unanimity.

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