TCS Daily

Postcards From Cancun

By Eric Bovim - September 12, 2003 12:00 AM

CANCUN, Mexico -- Just for the record, according to the affable Riverwind, "provocateurs" were responsible for the infamous calamity of the Seattle protests in 1999. They subversively coerced the police to gas activists. Now, as the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting kicks off, she is hoping conspirators will not provoke similar violence against innocents.


It is a hot Wednesday afternoon in the Caribbean resort town of Cancun, just hours before a Korean protester will fatally impale himself on one of the thousands of barricades fortifying the negotiation site. Over 10,000 will march in protest of the WTO, none of them breaking through the police lines.


Like Riverwind, most of them congregate prior to the march in the Cancun centro. That is a 120 peso taxi ride away from the five-star beachfront hotels. In the centro, thousands are clustered in the makeshift encampment ripe with the stench of urine.


They are all angry about the WTO agenda. Reading their banners, free trade equates to poverty for the poor. It is the usual litany of anti-capitalist, anarchist arguments against western governments.


"I'm the black sheep of the family," says Riverwind, whose father is an Air Force doctor. "I left home at sixteen. My father paid my way through American University... but now I have hardly any contact with them. But it's okay with me."


Riverwind, 33, has been in Cancun for three weeks, breaking from her job as a "perma-culture architect" in Sonoma County, California. She and her friends are renting a house here.


Transcending her white, American middle-class background to become a foot soldier in the anti-globalization movement, Riverwind is the prototypical activist. But she had sense enough at least not to reside in the encampment, known locally as the Pueblo Ecologico.


The Pueblo Ecologico is a safe zone set up by the local government as a way to keep protesters away from seaside Cancun and in the heart of the town of Cancun, where the Mexicans live.


The Pueblo is a field of grass with a massive open-air tent. Campesinos, or farmers, and their families gather on the outskirts. Women hold infants wearing green bandanas on their heads. They linger beside the porta-potties -- donated by the local government -- that  reek of excrement from 100 yards away.


Inside the tent, the protestors of globalization, neoliberalism and corporate greed are gathered in an orgy of dance. Moving to the tribal percussion, girls dance with shirtless young men, contorting their bodies in that familiar hippie style once common at Grateful Dead concerts.


One of the drummers, a young Mexican, is smoking and wears a blue polo shirt with a Kleenex logo. One of the dancers has dreadlocks, another wears camouflage cutoffs, another has a ring between their chin and lower lip.


A 40 yard-long line of campesinos wait for the free lunch. It is a creamy macaroni salad being shoveled out of a plastic waste bucket. People are getting their water from sealed plastic bags, the size and shape of breast implants.


I first meet Riverwind at the Pueblo's hand washing station. In this "mini camp" that captures, stores and pumps rainwater into basins, a sign reads:


"Corporations make you pay for clean water... Enjoy the free gift from the clouds and sky!"


Suddenly, the music stops and the crowd begins to file into the road on a 5 mile march to the conference site.


They start to sing slogans in Spanish. They beats drums. Someone shouts that the WTO is an assesino. In the midst of this, Adil Naidoo is calmly explaining how NAFTA has ruined Canada. Naidoo, a Canadian activist with the Blue planet project, is well-groomed, reasonable and totally against free trade in a rational - if perhaps misguided -- way.


"Neoliberalism is putting corporate rights ahead of people's rights. The Canadian people have a long history of suffering under NAFTA. The Mexicans didn't give away nearly as much as the Canadians did under the agreement."


Further along I run into Carrie from St. Louis, who is not a Cardinals fan because Busch Stadium was built with public money. With a masters in social work, she is here because Illinois has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs because of NAFTA. He mother, who works in a carpet factory in Illinois, has told her of all the layoffs in neighboring factories since NAFTA came into effect.


Like Riverwind, Carrie is also hoping the protest will pass peacefully, though she is prepared to be arrested and gassed if it comes to that. "I am more worried about the poor campesinos. Police will probably be more aggressive with them; we're international so they will leave us alone."


The taxi ride back to my hotel lasted nearly 30 minutes as the protesters have closed down the main roads into Cancun. Something Riverwind said comes back to me. "Colin Powell is here to keep us in poverty and slavery."


Later, I call the press room of the U.S. delegation. There are no plans for Collin Powell to attend the ministerial.


Eric Bovim is a TCS contributor.

TCS Daily Archives