<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español November 22, 2017 | Issue #31


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Cancún Trade Battle also Turns the Tables on the Drug War

Poor Countries Set a Precedent for How to Beat Impositions by the Wealthy Countries


By Al Giordano
With Cancún Photo Essay by Gonzálo Subirats and Victor Ruíz

September 18, 2003

“I learned that nobody respects someone who negotiates with his head bowed. Nobody respects anyone who negotiates as a lackey. With our heads lifted, defending our self-interest, we shall be able to grow and open extraordinary spaces…”

– President Lula da Silva, Brazil
September 16 speech about collapse of WTO meeting in Cancún

“Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart
You just gotta poke around…”

– Robert Hunter

SOMEWHERE IN MÉXICO: On the weekend that commemorates Mexico’s independence as a nation, the oft-derided and under-appreciated Caribbean city of Cancún once again became the legendary battlefield where the little guy fought back and won.

The victory was local, national, and especially international (the Zapatistas might add, “Intergalactic!”). In the somber words of former Australian trade ambassador Alan Oxley, a prominent backer of imposing economic policies on smaller nations, the collapse of the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Cancún this week has “unleashed serious consequences.”

Among those “serious consequences,” the bell tolls not only for trade policies, but also for the US-imposed “war on drugs.”

That giant crying sound in the distance comes from the schoolyard bullies of the global market and their Commercial Media acolytes who, for more than a decade, have fixed the game, its terms, and who succeeded, for a brief chapter of human history, in sustaining the Big Lie that “Free Trade” has anything to do with the word “free” – as they abused that “free trade” banner as part-and-parcel of a drug-war related set of impositions against democracy breaking out in other countries.

A better recipe for global democracy was invented in Cancún, and history will never be the same. “Free trade” has lost its luster of inevitability. For the first time in memory, the negotiators for the “small” economies of the world – where more than half the planet’s residents live – stopped being intimidated, divided, silenced, and picked off, by the major economic powers that represent a minority of citizens on earth.

And because the “free markets” push by the bully nations and their owners has long been intertwined, hypocritically, with the imposition of prohibitionist drug policies on the economically weaker nations, the fallout from Cancún fast moves toward similar developing-nation alliances to stand up to the US-imposed drug war.

The Legacy of Cancún

The legacy of Cancun goes far beyond matters of trade agreements between nations. It hits, finally, at long last, at the unspoken but central dilemma of our times: the tyranny of a wealthy minority, shamelessly using words like “democracy” and “freedom” to gain unfair advantage over the majority of human beings, over our time, our space, our labor, and the resources throughout the world that, if human beings do not steward them responsibly at the local and regional levels, will continue to be depleted (with the corresponding harm to the capacity of the planet’s resources to sustain human life and progress).

The legacy of Cancún 2003 is akin to that famous cartoon that the North American labor organization, the AFL CIO, has turned into an online video game: The big fish chases the little fish… then the little fish finally get it together to organize and save themselves from extinction.

That is what happened in Cancún. And a lot more than trade agreements are now in play as a result.

Cancún in September 2003, in fact, was a direct consequence of a less noticed rebellion in December 2002, when the majority of member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) stood up, for the first time in the organization’s history, to the United States representative. As Narco News reported as it happened (see “América Reborn: 32 Nations Back Venezuela,” Narco News, December 17, 2002), that was the event that opened the floodgates to weaker nations uniting to stand up to the pressures of bully nations.

Just as December’s precedent on one issue – Venezuela’s right to self-determination – set the stage for September’s precedent on another – the development of international trade agreements – this latest chapter will indubitably give birth to similar “alliances of the small” on other matters of public policy: with the drug war still swimming as the most tyrannical fish in the pond.

All Politics is Local

The Mexican State – that is, the central government of President Vicente Fox – was mainly at the sidelines of what occurred on its own territory last weekend.


Korean farmer Lee Kyung-hae climbs a fence to speak before taking his own life to protest WTO agricultural policy in Cancún, Mexico
Photo D.R. 2003 Victor Ruíz/Por Esto!
Whereas, prior to the WTO meeting, the Fox government had set up a Byzantine process for foreign non-governmental organization reps to apply for visas to attend the event, had established a “black list” of activists and world leaders to deny those visas, had specifically denied visas to important farmer organization leaders from South America and elsewhere, and had sent in the Army, Air Force, and Navy to cordon off the WTO sessions from protestors, by September 10th the Mexican State had lost control of the situation.

The main reason that the central Mexican State became largely irrelevant to the events was that, on the level of local public opinion, the Cancún-Yucatán peninsula region – even after being fed horror-stories by the national media portraying critics of the WTO as crazy and violence-prone “globalophobics” – rapidly opened its arms to the protesters.

The City of Cancún’s “Casa de Cultura” (“House of Culture”) became the base of operations for dissident farmers from Mexico and elsewhere whose livelihoods were threatened by the proposals on the negotiating table inside the posh hotel zone of Cancún. The region’s fishermen – a significant and important population in this coastal area – also organized and worked together with the protestors: their livelihood, too, was threatened by WTO proposals to give unfair advantage to large multinational fishing conglomerates in the Caribbean and other regions.

At the grassroots level, Civil Society in the Yucatán peninsula – in no small part due to the authentic journalism of the Cancún region’s largest daily, Por Esto! – opened a space for thousands of “globalocríticos” (Por Esto!’s substitute term for the insulting title of “globalo-phobics” invented by those cowards who try to drum the courageous out of the debate) to move in the streets and on the beaches despite an overwhelming military and police effort to squash them.


Photo D.R. 2003 Gonzálo Subirats/Por Esto!
After all was said and done and the WTO closed up shop and left Cancún, I spoke with my colleague, friend, and victorious codefendant Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, editor and publisher of Por Esto!, whose newspaper set the gold standard for accurate and fair coverage of the events in its region. (Por Esto! is the most widely-read newspaper in the state of Quintana Roo and its city of Cancún; and the third most widely-read daily in all of Mexico.)

Mario explained that, prior to the WTO meeting, the local business sector was opposed to the protests, whereas the political sector was already divided. “Some felt the publicity would be good for local tourism. Others felt that the negative publicity, especially about poverty and misery on the outskirts of Cancún, would be harmful.”

“But the general population,” explained the veteran journalist, “agreed with the globalocríticos, with the position of the weakest standing up to the strongest.”

A collective hush fell over the Yucatán peninsula – and much of the world – on September 10th, when Korean Farmer Lee Kyung-hae, 56, his once-thriving farm destroyed by market policies misnamed as “free,” took his life in protest on the streets of Cancún.

Say what you want, kind reader, about the tactic, or about suicide in general, or the mental state of the destroyed farmer, but that single act, with one swift movement of a knife, ratcheted the story up to a new and more serious discourse than the formulaic cops-versus-protestors wire stories had so far offered.

That was the turning point, according to Menéndez: “The sacrifice by the Korean marked the difference. When he died, the WTO died with him: we called it the symbolic death of the oppressors.”

Indeed, Por Esto!’s coverage – led by its photo editor, Narco News School of Authentic Journalism professor Gonzálo Subirats, with photographer Victor Ruíz and the reporting team, who were on the scene to archive it – was an example of graphic, gripping, yet responsible journalism at a tense moment. “The journalism we presented,” recounts Menéndez, “especially graphically with photos, reflected the public view. After the death of the Korean, we showed him while he was still alive, with his banner, later, his knife, then, his supporters, and the following demonstration led by the Koreans. And it was clear that they were against confrontation. The message they transmitted, which is peace with justice, resonated with local public opinion. And we showed that the protesters were not crazies looking for confrontation with the police, and this was showed with the photographs as well as text.”

Post-WTO meeting, public opinion in the host city runs so deep that Cancún Mayor Juan García has proposed erecting a monument to the memory of Lee Kyung-hae.

A Wake-Up Call for Fox

The revolt, as immediate history reveals, was not simply in the streets, and spread far beyond the locals. People came from all over the world. Last month, the Zapatistas – in many ways, the moral leaders of the Mexican body politic – issued a communiqué calling to join the protests in Cancun. Mexican farmer, labor, and student organizations rented buses from all corners of the Republic to participate in the protests, adding a solid working-class Mexican base to the ranks of the activists from around the world who could afford to travel to expensive Cancún. This, too, helped turn local public opinion.


Photo D.R. 2003 Gonzálo Subirats/Por Esto!
Mexican President Vicente Fox, a cheerleader for markets replacing democratic government as the arbiter of human events, already weakened by the electorate’s rejection of his party in July’s congressional and state elections (see “Fox at Half-Life,” Part I ), became uncharacteristically silent in the days leading up to the Battle of Cancún.

Menéndez, a fierce critic of Fox’s policies, says that the events in Cancún crystallized, for the public, the conflict between Fox’s subservient-to-the-gringos “free market” enthusiasm and the real human needs of Mexican farmers and consumers. “Fox’s position, post-Cancún, won’t be as easy as it was before. If he wants to deliver Mexico to U.S. economic policies, he will have to answer to the Mexican producers. They can’t compete with the U.S. government subsidies to its producers and farmers. The situation in Mexico was not easy. Now, that fact is clear to the public.”

Traditionally and for decades the Mexican government was the interlocutor between all of Latin America and the United States. But Fox’s quick fall from grace after his election in 2000, combined with the 2002 election, in Brazil, of a new player on the global stage – President Lula da Silva – has reshuffled the international deck. Lula, and not Fox, now leads an increasingly united Latin America.

Blaming Brazil


Photo D.R. Victor Ruíz/Por Esto!
The collective hush continues over much of the neo-conservative pro-market Commercial Media and Internet: they’re in a state of shock over the collapse of the WTO talks. The New York Times editorial board lashed out on September 16th, calling Cancún a “snake pit” (those in the newsroom and editorial offices on 43rd Street, as we saw during the crash and burn of its editors and publisher over last Spring’s Jayson Blair scandals, at least know something about “snake pits” from first-hand life experience… but the pit, in this case, is calling the kettle black).

The Times blames what it calls “a number of rich nations” for derailing the talks (it names Japan, Korea, and the European Union, but doesn’t explain why it blames them over the multitude of poorer nations who led Sunday’s walk-out, effectively a “negotiator’s strike” that shut down the misery factory: the Times is historically loathe to give any credit to the hoi-polloi). The Times editorial states: “contrary to the mindless cheering with which the breakdown was greeted by antiglobalization protesters at Cancún, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations will suffer most.”

But the Times – the “paper of record” from “the capital of capital” – admits, a couple of graphs later, that the leadership to blow up the WTO talks came not from Europe or Japan, but, rather, from below: “The principal demand of these developing nations, led at Cancún by Brazil, has been an end to high tariffs and agricultural subsidies in the developed world, and rightly so. Poor nations find it hard to compete against rich nations’ farmers, who get more than $300 billion in government handouts each year.” (Emphasis added.)


Photo D.R. Victor Ruíz/Por Esto!
In other words, deciphering Timespeak, Brazil’s demands were just, until the point when Brazil and other developing nations held the line against the override of their just demands. (No wonder the Times editorial is unsigned: whoever wrote it is byline-o-phobic, and for good reason.)

The late Johnny Cash may have also been watching over the proceedings, dressed in black from the “old cotton fields back home” of the great beyond. U.S. negotiators were unwilling to acquiesce to their own so-called “free trade” position when it came to government cotton subsidies. This is what led to the explosion: African cotton-producing nations told Washington to fuck off, and that led the exodus of developing nation negotiators from the convention hall. As Cash once sang: “It may sound a little bit funny, but you don’t make very much money in them old cotton fields back home.”

Still, the “Blame Brazil” chorus, today in whispers, is likely to increase in volume as the search for scapegoats begins. Take Alan Oxley, Australia’s former ambassador to the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) organization, commenting Monday over at Tech Central Station:

“Those who lined up with Brazil at Cancun to insist that developing countries should not cut agricultural trade barriers in the agricultural negotiations should be wondering now if they did the right thing. The baby got thrown out with the bathwater. It serves them right. They forgot what the WTO is about.”

“India, China, Thailand and the Philippines lined up with Brazil,” bemoaned Oxley. “India still seems half hearted about economic reform. And an election is imminent.”

Damn elections! Democracy, it turns out, is in the way of imposed trade policies, according to the pro-imposed market position of Oxley and his fellow travelers.

Oxley is in a state of shock and disbelief that “big” nations like India, China, Thailand, and the Philippines would join with other developing nations in a show of force and unity because, according to him, “they are big enough to look after themselves,” but, by “hooking into the Brazilian ploy” they have, warns Oxley, “unleashed serious consequences.”

Scratch the surface of a self-proclaimed “free-market” enthusiast, and more often than not you’ll find an anti-democracy soul. Oxley could be a poster boy for that tendency. He complains of the walkout by “the African and Caribbean nations—numerous in the WTO but inconsequential in trade.” In other words, “one man, one vote” (or “one country, one vote”), in a world where the majority (and the majority population of most nations as a whole) is poor, should not count: what counts to the rich and their negotiators is “one dollar, one vote”: Oxley wants to continue a game with rules that favor the wealthy nations (and the wealthiest powers within those nations) already. Well… at least he’s honest enough to admit it.

True, Brazil, under the democratically-elected and popular government of Lula da Silva, sure did stir up a shit storm: but the manure – made of the proverbial waste products of “globalization” known as misery and poverty – was already there, just waiting for the wind from below.

A Very Fortunate Day

Say this for Glenn Harlan Reynolds, the pro-market “>Insta-Pundit and undisputed hit-count king of Blogolandia: he’s at least commenting on these earthshaking events while other neo-libertarian bloggers have fled from the debate as rapidly as WTO negotiators walked out. Reynolds called Sunday’s shocking turn of events “a very unfortunate day.”


Photo D.R. 2003 Victor Ruíz/Por Esto!
Instapundit also posted a link, Monday, to Ronald Bailey’s Reason magazine commentary. Bailey must be reading the same Bush administration talking points as the NY Times editorial writers. To him, the poor countries have won “a Pyrrhic victory over the rich WTO countries” and “a case of cutting your nose off to spite your face.” He says “the poor countries—organized as a bloc called the G20 (also known as G33) that Brazil, China, India, Kenya, and South Africa -insisted that they be allowed to ‘protect’ their farmers by maintaining tariffs against agricultural imports from the developed countries. In other words, the G20 countries were demanding that the rich countries open their markets while they kept theirs closed.”

Well, I ask: Where would the “poor countries” get an idea like that? Obviously, they got it from the rich countries who have insisted, since the beginning of the misnamed “free trade” era – just look at the unfair provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and what they’ve done to Mexico’s farmers in less than a decade – on imposing different rules for the developing world than they are willing to obey themselves.

The Drug War Paradigm

Back during the early-1990s debate over NAFTA, Jonathan Larson made an interesting observation about the relationship between “free trade” politics and drug wars:

The first time the arguments of free trade were used to sway public opinion occurred with the Opium Wars in China of 1839-42 and renewed in 1856-60. British drug dealers were importing approximately a ton of opium per day from India. The Chinese grew resentful at the damage this volume of addiction was causing their society and tried to close their borders. The Brits were ruthless in suppressing this tiny revolt of drug-hating nationalist Chinese. The Encyclopaedia Britannica estimates that as many as 20,000,000 of them died as a result of the Opium Wars.

When the word leaked out about the extent of this carnage over what was essentially a drug deal gone bad, polite society in Britain scrambled to find an intellectual cover for their actions in China. Free trade, the right of passage of goods between nations, could not be impeded. This war was not about drugs but to secure a greater prosperity for all. Because she lost the wars, China granted Britain a free port – Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a British demand because it “proved” the Opium Wars were not about drugs but about free trade. With their cultural consciousness soothed, polite Britain returned to the more mundane outrages of colonialism.

Lest one think that free trade as moral cover for drug dealing is the problem of our ancient past, a recent example should suffice. Thailand, citing ample health warnings, decided to ban the importation of tobacco, a dangerous drug more addicting than heroin according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Thailand was forced to repeal their health legislation in the late 1980s to satisfy the requirements of the international trade bureaucrats who ruled that such laws cannot be allowed because they restrain trade.


The testimony of former Colombian Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff, about how the United States uses the drug war to promote unfair trade agendas having nothing to do with drugs, also comes to mind (see “Toward Drug Legalization: A Conversation with Gustavo de Greiff,” Maria Botey, Narco News, November 14, 2002):

The government most interested and invested in the policy of the drug war and at the same time is its grand promoter, he said, is the United States government, which has used the policy to subjugate the countries of Latin America. On one end they use the “de-certification” process. De Greiff notes: “They’ve used this on multiple occasions as a threat when U.S. conditions that have nothing to do with the drug war are imposed, as was the case in 1995 when the U.S. Ambassador in Colombia conditioned that country’s certification on changes in a banana export agreement with Europe.”

Of course, as the more honest enthusiasts of unmitigated trade admit, drug prohibition is the most authoritarian restriction on market forces on earth today. The problem is that most market believers pay, at most, lip service to this position, while providing political and media cover to the very same political factions in the developed world that speak of “free trade” while using the drug war as its bludgeon to impose other trade policies.

What has happened now, as a result of Cancún, is an important development on the drug policy reform front: Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences. A major consequence for the “free trade agreements” movement, now, post-Cancún, having lost its sheen of inevitability (and, I venture, dead in the water like the WTO that was its biggest fish), is that the bottom has fallen out from Washington and Wall Street’s big push for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

When it comes to Latin American trade agreements, the Bush administration has lost the upper hand. The Lula administration, in Brazil, has grabbed the steering wheel, and now counts with the global support from nations with smaller economies, not just in Latin America, but across the globe: nations that, collectively, represent a majority of the world’s population.

No longer counting with the momentum to ram “free trade agreements” down the throats of smaller nations, Washington is going to have to reassess its entire Latin American strategy. Even the Bush White House now admits that the trade agenda must “pause” for a spell, and regroup.

And as Lula, the former steelworker and union leader, now president of Latin America’s biggest country, said in a speech on Monday about the Cancún fallout:

“I learned that nobody respects someone who negotiates with his head bowed. Nobody respects anyone who negotiates as a lackey. With our heads lifted, defending our self-interest, we shall be able to grow and open extraordinary spaces…”

Lula’s Secretary of State, Celso Amorin, according to Forbes magazine, was received by the national legislature – a body consisting of a majority of members of opposition parties to the Lula government – upon his return from Cancún, hailed as a conquering hero for his success at floor-managing the developing country delegates at the WTO meeting.

Lula, as documented extensively on Narco News, is also a longtime critic of prohibitionist drug policies.

The precedent set in Cancún – of economically weaker nations banding together to resist the impositions of economically stronger nations (a trend noticed by leading U.S. drug policy reformer Ethan Nadelmann in his recent Foreign Policy magazine analysis ) – is precisely the prescription that can finally turn the tables on the US-imposed “war on drugs.”

Until last weekend, the strategy of the weaker nations uniting against the impositions by the economically stronger ones, was a theory, floated in the year 2000 by Narco News, and tested, successfully, last December at the Organization of American States.

Today, in the post-Cancún context of “globalized resistance,” it is a repeating and replicating trend.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America