The Real Cancun -- RW ONLINE
Reporter's Notebook from WTO Protests
Part 1: The March of the Campesinos
by Luciente Zamora
Revolutionary Worker #1216, October 19,
2003, posted at rwor.org
RW correspondents Luciente Zamora and Nikolai
García traveled to Cancun, Mexico to document a
first-hand account of the protests against the World Trade
Organization, September 10-14. The following is the first in
a series of articles from the frontlines in
I think of Lee Kyung Hae stabbing his chest with the
blade of a pocket knife at the top of the 10-foot-tall metal
barrier, six miles away from the conference hall of the World
Trade Organization. He was a 56-year-old and a leader among
Korean farmers, actively struggling against the forces bringing
death and misery to his country. In a message before his death
he said, "The pain of my sacrifice symbolizes the pain of all
my brothers for whom I give my life today."
I imagine looking at the thoughts behind Lee's pained,
yet defiant stare--and I can see a lightning fast slide
I see images of orchards and rice paddies in Korea, trees
with wide-reaching branches... then gurgling rivers in Chiapas
and Oaxaca, next to fields of organic corn . . .
I see images of peasants with the sad gaze of someone who
has lost their home. They migrate from their villages in
Brazil, Honduras, Korea, Mexico. Around the world, more than
one million every week put down the tools they use to work the
land to be tied to a machine in maquiladoras and sweatshops
that are spreading like blistering boils all over the
I think of campesinos holding a banner "WTO Kills
Peasants! Down With WTO." They look so powerful and determined.
Anger boils through their veins. They are angry, but they are
also searching. They are searching for the road out.
The life existence of every campesino, youth, student,
woman and revolutionary that we met in Cancun represents a deep
fault line. As I look back at the anti-WTO protests in Cancun,
I can see the fault lines intersecting...
There have been extremely powerful demonstrations against
the World Trade Organization (WTO) in cities around the world.
As different people planned to protest the September 10-14 WTO
meeting in Cancun, things were undoubtedly following in this
tradition. But something unprecedented was about to take
The WTO conference was going to be in Mexico, a country
whose countryside and peasantry has been devastated and
dominated by imperialism. Cancun, where the WTO meeting was to
take place, was where two years earlier, 300 people were
brutalized by riot police while protesting the World Economic
Forum--exposing the brutality of the newly elected and
so-called "democratic" President Vicente Fox. An already
volatile mix of anti-globalization activists and students from
around the globe were coming to protest in Cancun. And adding
fire to this flame were thousands of angry campesinos from
throughout Mexico, travelling thousands of miles to protest
against the people ruining their lives.
We were excited to arrive in Cancun, but had mixed feelings
about the city. Every travel package we looked through while
making our travel arrangements showed pictures of smiling,
blond-haired, blue-eyed tourists, swimming among dolphins and
promising an unforgettable adventure. Our image of Cancun was
informed by giant ads for a night of dinner, drinks, and
dancing that littered the landscape once we arrived.
But as soon as we walked through the city, that image was
instantly shattered by the real Cancun. We saw women
dressed in traditional indigenous dresses, begging tourists for
money or selling them hand-woven belts on the streets. We saw
peasants from southern Mexico who arrive daily to the streets
of Cancun, searching for work at construction sites--willing to
sell their labor at any price. Local residents, many of them
indigenous Maya, aren't allowed free access to the white-sand
beaches. In Cancun a liter of drinking water costs more than a
liter of gas. Services like clean water, sewers, and garbage
removal are almost non-existent for the people who scratch out
a living working in Cancun's fancy hotels or laboring as maids,
taxi drivers, construction workers, or street vendors.
The real Cancun was nothing like the commercials we had seen
for the movie The Real Cancun-- which filmed seven
strangers having the time of their lives in a Spring Break
Bienvenidos a Cancun/Welcome to Cancun
Campesinos, in buses packed to capacity, waved their straw
hats and red bandanas, and raised their brown fists as they
were greeted by the cheers of peasants and farmers from more
than 33 countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, Haiti,
Mozambique, South Africa, Japan, Korea, and the United States.
Anarco-punks arriving in a caravan from Mexico City, pumped
their fists out of bus windows. Another furious roar arrived
along with students from UNAM (Universidad Autonoma de Mexico),
as hundreds of rebellious and revolutionary youth from
throughout Mexico chanted "Repudio Total a la Cumbre Imperial!"
("To hell with the imperialist summit!")
For weeks before the WTO conference, and especially in the
days before the conference, authorities tried their best to
isolate the protestors from Cancun's local residents.
Television newscasts announced: " ALERTA! Vienen los
Globalifóbicos a Cancun!" ("WARNING,
Globalifóbicos are coming to Cancun!"
Globalifóbicos is a name the government invented
for anti-globalization activists who they say oppose capitalist
"progress.") News stations called the anti-globalization
activists violent. They aired long segments of footage from
Seattle's 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in an attempt to scare
the people in Cancun. They urged residents to stay inside their
homes and avoid all unnecessary travel around the city or
contact with "outsiders." Schools were closed.
In the hotel district, delegates of the conference, media,
and hotel workers were required to carry a special
identification with a photo and fingerprints to enter the area.
In an attempt to discourage protests on the streets, the
government allocated sports stadiums for forums and
"alternative" conferences that were isolated from the
As the WTO conference's opening day approached, authorities
were suspicious of everyone who looked like an activist, a
university student, a campesino, or an independent journalist.
Busloads of campe- sinos and students were stopped at
checkpoints all along the highway entering Cancun. Several
independent journalists were arrested for taking pictures of
the Policía Federal Preventiva (Federal Police)
rehearsing "police operations."
Marcha Campesina,10 de septiembre/Peasant March,
Everywhere we turned there were signs of resistance. In
hotel lobbies, groups of protesters chanted "Africa is Not for
Sale" amidst the beats of drums and pounding feet. Koreans
wearing "NO-WTO" khaki-colored vests walked in large groups
among many other youth and campesinos wearing their favorite
political t-shirts. All over there were slogans shouting from
walls in the form of graffiti.
It was the morning of the 10th. La Marcha Campesina
was only hours away. Everyone was in a serious and determined
mood to set off and march to ground zero--also referred to as
punto zero -- the site of the fence. A declaration
written by campesinos stated that their purpose to march was to
demand that the WTO not interfere with agriculture and that
human nourishment not be subjected to trans- national
corporations that are destroying the economy.
Everyone was busy. But it wasn't unusual to see people take
a minute to look around and appreciate what was happening with
a smile. Something beautifully powerful was coming together for
the people and dangerously threatening for the imperialists.
The commonality of peasants around the world was becoming
clearer. The source of their ruin was also coming into focus.
Landless peasants from Brazil walked arm in arm with landless
peasants from Chiapas talking about their struggle. Mexican
campesinos who have rarely or never been outside small towns
shared snow cones with Korean farmers and talked about--with
the few words some Koreans knew in Spanish--how their countries
are being destroyed by the U.S. and other wealthy nations.
Peasants from third world countries explained to small farmers
from the United States how the U.S. is ruining their lives.
In the hours before the Marcha Campesina , as we
walked along these different camps we saw people hurriedly
dipping brushes in paint containers to touch up their banners.
Organizers grouped their people into contingents. Activists did
last-minute leafleting in the communities along the route of
the march. Youth tied their shoelaces super tight and tied red
flags to heavy wooden and metal pipes. Other youth helped each
other tie drums around their waists. Volunteer medics piled
shopping carts with bottled and bagged water and first aid
On any other day, on the green grass at the stadium, el
estadio Beto Avila , you would have seen a shortstop
catching a fly-ball or an outfielder running towards the wall
in an attempt to stop a homerun. But on the day we arrived,
aficionados of a different kind filled the stadium. The
baseball field had transformed into a tent city of activists
from all over Mexico and the world. Tents were laid out on
every free space of grass. Bigger tents were set up apart from
the main camping grounds as a space for people to have planning
meetings for the protests that week, hold forums about peasant
and indigenous issues, or as shelter from the scorching
A nearby cultural center, La Casa de la Cultura , was
decorated with Via Campesina's bright banners that read:
"Globalize the Struggle. Globalize Hope." Via Campesina is an
international movement which coordinates peasant organizations
in Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. Peasants in delegations
from all around the globe tied green scarves around their
necks, as they got ready for the big march.
El Parque de las Palapas is a park located in a very
populated tourist zone, a couple of miles away from Beto
Avila stadium. Here other encampments were getting ready
for the march.
Black flags and a banner with Carlo Giuliani's name hung
from the trees that encircled the camp. This camp named itself
the "El Campamento Carlo Giuliani" in memory of the youth who
was shot by police and then run over by a police vehicle while
protesting the G-8 Summit in Genoa in July of 2001. Most of the
anarchist youth had traveled from Mexico City and refused to be
intimidated by authorities despite the multiple police vehicles
that followed them as they arrived in Cancun.
A vibrant painting on cloth of the Earth breaking free from
chains--a symbol associated with the Revolutionary
Internationalist Movement--immediately caught our attention.
People were walking around wearing red and green t-shirts with
the faces of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. "The Anti-Imperialist Camp"
welcomed us inside.
Large, medium, and small tarps were strung together like a
quilt to provide the people at the camp with shelter from the
sun and rain. At the Anti-Imperialist camp, Maoist
revolutionaries, campesinos, students from UNAM and other
schools throughout Mexico gathered their materials for the
march under the shade of a bright red banner that read "La
Revolución es la Solución." Others made last
minute preparations next to a banner with a drawing of a
Palestinian youth throwing a rock at a tank and a colorful
canvas with a picture of an Uncle Sam skeleton on top of a U.S.
flag that had an image of a Nazi swastika blurred into it.
It was hot. Very hot. The sun burned through our
sweat-drenched clothes and no amount of water was cold enough
to cool us down. A Maoist from the camp said, in a comforting
voice, "It's plenty hot and humid here, but the heat I feel the
strongest is the human warmth of my compañeros. Now that
kind of heat is cool! It's the warmth that comes from having a
common enemy and uniting together in combat."
Llegada al punto zero/Arrival at ground
Once protesters reached el punto zero the Infernal
Noise Brigade, a marching band from Seattle, drummed beats
intensifying the determination of the protestors. A U.S. flag
was thrown over the 10-foot-tall barricade and burned--
campesinos and students chanted "Fuera Yanquis de America
Latina!" ("Yankees out of Latin America!")
Lee Kyung Hae, a Korean farmer participating in a 200-strong
contingent, climbed to the top of the fence, pulled out a
knife, stabbed himself in the heart and took his own life.
Lee had once been a prosperous cattle farmer. However, when
shifts in international trade caused the import of cheap beef
into South Korea and the price of cattle plummeted, Lee was
ruined. By the time he came to Cancun, he had already
participated in many anti-globalization protests and gone on
numerous hunger strikes.
Word about Lee's death spread and things heated up.
Korean farmers, Mexican campesinos, students, anarchists
from Mexico City, Mexican Maoists, and internationals grabbed
hold of the fence and shook it with a tremendous force that
matched the furious beat of their hearts. Once the protesters
tore down a sizable portion of the fence the two sides--cops
and protesters--lined up. A group of people managed to cross a
few feet into the prohibited territory, into the hotel
district. The police moved to immediately close the open
breech, clubbed protesters, and threw them back to the
More protesters moved closer.
Shopping carts full of pipes, chunks of concrete, rocks,
bottles, were rolled to the front lines. The crowd thrust
forward. A youth asked me, "Will you excuse me for a minute?"
and he pulled a concrete lid from the pavement. He rolled it
like a bowling ball toward the police lines. Some youth took
their red and black flags, folded them up and put them in their
backpacks or back pockets so they could use the flag poles and
pipes. Others gave the police shields kung-fu like kicks. At
least one cop lost his shield and baton to the victorious
A campesino from Veracruz explained that they just wanted to
talk to the people making life-and- death decisions for them.
He was patient and reasonable as he explained, "We wanted to
talk with the people who are making the decisions, but they
wouldn't let us in. That's why we broke through the barrier. At
first we didn't want there to be violence, but we did want to
talk with the WTO. They said `no.' Well, since they refused to
let us pass, we brought down the fence."
Farmers from the Korean contingent talked about Lee Kyung
Hae's death and said, "It's a sacrifice we're very proud of.
There are few ways out. The WTO is bringing death to our
agriculture and our peasants. It's almost impossible to survive
in the countryside. His death is a message, a symbolic act of
what our people face."
A campesino from Chiapas told us, "We belong to the land,
not to the foreigners that want to fuck us over. Although they
wage low intensity war against us--we are not going to let them
continue. We will resist. The government wants to change the
direction of the country. Well, the people also want to change
that direction. There are two directions--either the government
will win or the people will."
His friend agreed. "They want to ransack everything, but we
won't let them. We will defend ourselves until the end. We are
prepared for that."
The contrast was clear: Two sides. Two futures.
To be continued.Part II--Dos Rumbos/Two Roads: Voices
from the Campesinos
This article is posted in English and Spanish on
Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
http://rwor.org - Revolutionary Worker Online
http://rwor.org/resistance -RW resource page on resisting the juggernaut of war and repression
http://2changetheworld.info - Discuss revolutionary strategy and the RCP's Draft Programme