With the WTO in Cancun -- of All Places

The sun is hot, the taxis are cool, the delegates are frazzled, some protesters are naked, and none of it makes much sense

By Paul Magnusson

The World Trade Organization is holding its ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico. But is Cancun really Mexico?

Well, maybe in the same way that the Las Vegas Strip is America -- which is to say no. A friend of mine calls Cancun "Fort Lauderdale with better English." It is, in the understated words of the travel agencies, "a tourist destination," and it is sometimes touted as "Mexico's Riviera."

Cancun is on a barrier island, separated by a lagoon from the rest of the Yucatan peninsula. Think Miami Beach with some 60 massive hotels along a thin strip of beach, each with its own swimming pool -- all the better to serve drinks from the accompanying bars. The pools are also handy because signs warn: "The hotel does not recommend swimming in the ocean." Too many jellyfish and pieces of broken coral, they explain. In the occasional open space between the hotels lies a hint of what the island once was -- a lush paradise of palm trees and bougainvillea.


  Official delegates to the WTO have distinctive red badges and blue neck lanyards, but they're more easily recognized by their suits and ties, which many insist on wearing despite the blistering heat. Business lobbyists, with orange lanyards and badges, leave off the ties and wear sport coats. Journalists sport green badges and dress as they please. Those from Europe and Asia are accompanied by clouds of cigarette smoke.

Locations for the WTO ministerial meetings -- this is the fifth such gathering and the first in a developing nation -- are critically important because the WTO itself has few resources (a budget of only $107 million and 170 employees) and must depend on the host country for organization, planning, and security. The WTO is so strapped these days that on Sept. 10, the U.S. announced it was throwing in an extra $1 million to help it with expenses.

Delegates raced from hotel to hotel in search of credentials

Small wonder impression is the WTO isn't completely on top of things here. For example, it published a list of countries whose journalists and lobbyists wouldn't need visas. That turned out to be inaccurate, and at the last minute, many of them had to line up at Mexican embassies and consulates to get quickie visas. Business groups had to pay $99 for each one.

Instead of receiving badges at the convention center, delegates found themselves directed to several hotels along the strip, sometimes only to find that their credentials were at another hotel. Of course, they were welcomed at any hotel, as rooms might otherwise go begging during the height of the hurricane season. Air-conditioned taxis also did a brisk business shuttling confused delegates and journalists in search of their credentials.


  These huge international economic confabs have become a magnet for protestors, but in the two years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the demonstrations have become less violent and destructive, and the security has become heavier. At Cancun, some protestors tried to create a TV visual by lying naked -- face down -- in the hot sand to form the letters, "No to the WTO." Their tan lines indicated they were usually far more modestly dressed for laying in the sun.

At the official convention center, some members of the 980 "nongovernmental organizations" who received credentials to attend the negotiations briefly interrupted opening ceremonies by holding up signs saying: "WTO: antidemocratic, anti-development, obsolete." They had put electrical tape over their mouths as if they were being muzzled, but no one interfered with their demonstration.

In town, police set up a fence to keep demonstrators away from the delegates. Protesters try to tear it down and break through while throwing things at the police, who protect themselves with helmets and plastic shields. The occasional demonstrator who does get through then gets thrown back by the cops, in what looks like a game of fence tennis.


  The ritual was marred when a man, identified as Lee Hyung Hae, 56, a South Korean farmer distraught over efforts by poorer nations to reduce rich-nation farm subsidies and import tariffs, stabbed himself. Lee carried a sign that read: "WTO! Kills. Farmers." He died at a local hospital.

Lee was a past president of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation. He had protested previously at the WTO headquarters in Geneva with the same sign in March, living in a tent and declaring a hunger strike. His chief demand: Exclude agriculture from the WTO system.

Lee's death, like everything else about this meeting, seems so wrong and out of place for a tourist destination.

Magnusson, trade correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau, is covering the WTO meeting

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