Cancún, quintana roo - with 50 international forums on subjects ranging from alternative media to fishing to Iraq, a visit by the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior, many daily marches plus abundant cultural happenings, this week's anti-globalization gathering is a full-spectrum rainbow. This boisterous reality show is here to protest the fifth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the "development' round of trade negotiations supposedly designed to bridge the gap between the rich North and the impoverished South.
While Mexico's anti-globalization movement is not large, a strong and combative campesino base is slowly amassing. Principal organizers include the National Union of Autonomous Regional Organizations, which groups together 4,000 independent farmers' orgs.
Also on hand are Via Campesina, an international coalition of farmers from 70 nations that represents a constituency of 100 million. Among Via Campesina contingents are Brazil's Sem Terras, or landless farmers, and campesino organizations from several close-by Central American countries. The farmers are joined by urban workers; the National Workers Union is caravaning to Cancún from Mexico City.
Worldbeat anti-global superstar Manu Chao is rumoured to be on his way. Chao is said to be one of 60 dangerous globalphobes included on a Mexican government watch list recently revealed by the daily Reforma. Also in the rogues gallery (whose existence is denied by the administration of President Vicente Fox): the mild-mannered Noam Chomsky, José Bové, the charismatic French goat farmer (a French judge has barred him from leaving his country), California spiritual feminist leader Starhawk (who is here), and John Sellers (the Ruckus Society) and Kevin Danaher (Global Exchange), the architects of Seattle.
Also singled out: Luca Casarini, an ex-leader of the White Overalls and veteran of many European campaigns, the ultra-left students from Mexico's General Strike Council at the National University and the machete-wielding farmers of San Salvador Atenco. Although the Fox government officially "welcomes' the protests, it is charging foreign activists $100 for a special visa to attend.
Cancún is not lacking the anarchist Black Bloc either. The Carlo Giuliani Brigade, led by Mexican punks and named for the Italian activist killed by police during the Genoa G-8 protests two summers ago, is here.
The White Overalls, who in 2001 accompanied the Zapatista Army of National Liberation up to Mexico City from Chiapas, have also made it clear that they consider the WTO an illegitimate organization and are not respecting restricted zones.
WTO negotiations have focused on four themes: agriculture, intellectual property rights, tariffs on manufactured goods (textiles) and preferential treatment for the have-not countries. No agreements were reached by the March 31 deadline for the Cancún agenda, and Pascal Lamay, the European Union's trade commissioner, is gloomy about the prospects for breaking the logjam at these meetings.
Negotiations are snarled around two key issues: U.S.-UE agricultural subsidies and pharmaceutical industry patents on vital drugs for AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and 20 other life-threatening diseases.
Since the round in Doha, Qatar, U.S. president George W. Bush, who raises millions in political contributions from pharmaceutical giants, has been adamant about not relinquishing patent rights to allow poor nations cheap access to drugs. But last month, the White House had a sudden change of heart.
In an effort to infuse the World Trade Organization with a more humanitarian glow, the U.S. is now offering a complicated protocol that will permit drug makers in developing nations like India and Brazil to manufacture and sell generic versions of expensive life-saving drugs to the world's poorest 27 nations.
On the other hand, less poor countries like Mexico are being pressured to pledge that they will not "exploit' the patent exception - except in cases of a "national epidemic emergency' as defined by the WTO. "It will be interesting to see how the Mexican government explains to dying Third World AIDS patients why they are still paying First World prices to stay alive,' writes prominent Mexican anti-globalization activist Sylvia Ribeiro.
But if agreement is imminent on drug patents, agriculture will not be so easy to unknot. The sticking point is the enormous subsidies Quad nations (Canada, U.S., UE and Japan) shell out to their farmers. U.S. farmers receive $21,000 per capita in handouts a year (all figures U.S.) from their department of agriculture, Mexicans $700 if they fall under the government's purview. Ten billion dollars in subsidies to U.S. corn farmers enables them to dump their grain in Mexico at 20 per cent below cost.
But U.S. subsidies pale when compared to the UE, which expends $2.50 daily to keep a single cow grazing in a pasture. Japanese payouts are even more grotesque: $7.50 per cow. Most of the world's population barely survives on $1 to $2 a day.
A recent Iowa State University study reveals that radical readjustment of agricultural subsidies and tariffs in the North would transfer $60 billion each year to poor exporters - more than the total amount invested in development in the South by donor countries.
On the heels of the drug agreement (if that's what it was), Washington and the European Union struck a deal on limiting subsidies on all agricultural products, but not eliminating them, as had been demanded by poor and developing countries. Professor John Odell, a University of Southern California professor who writes extensively on arcane WTO matters, even calculates that disaffected poor and developing nations could walk out on the session, crippling the Doha round and even dooming the WTO.