Cancun — Activists from all over the world converged on this Mexican resort town to protest the latest meeting of the World Trade Organization. Self-styled anarchists in black balaclavas mingled with third world farmers, paid union activists, and American college student Indymedia types with cellphones. Press estimates put their numbers as high as 150,000, but by the time I arrived Thursday, on the second day of talks, the anniversary of September 11, the crowd must have shrunk considerably — maybe 15,000 still agitated for change. One taxi driver said that though these protesters were bad, they were nowhere near as crazy as the Spring Break crowd, which was ironic, considering that these illegitimate spawn of Che Guevera actually meant to take it to the streets.
I arrived there and joined a group from Bureaucrash, a motley assortment of free market types, on a mission that was either Quixotic or brilliant. We were there to protest the protesters. Through pamphleteering, satire, and pure, sweet reason, we wanted to point out to these so-called progressives the merits of free trade and globalization, or at least get some good footage of them trying to work out some of the contradictions in the tangled thicket of anti-globalist agitprop they reflexively spewed.
Granted, the reason option was a long shot from the start. To get an idea of how cra-a-azy some of these people were, consider: The day before I arrived, South Korean farmer and union leader Lee Kyung-Hae had climbed on top of a barricade with a sign that said, “The WTO kills farmers” slung around his neck. Once he got the crowd’s attention by brandishing a pocket knife, Lee stabbed himself through the heart and bled and died not long thereafter in the hospital. It was a publicity stunt gone badly wrong; one member of Lee’s group told us, on camera, that he hadn’t intended to kill himself and had done sort of thing before with only a flesh wound to show for it. Maybe he got caught up in the moment.
The self-inflicted nature of Lee’s demise, however, did not stop the protesters from claiming him as a martyr. His name became a chant (“Lee! Lee! Lee!”) and his death an act of heroism for the demonstrators who remained. They constructed an impromptu shrine, complete with flowers and candles, to him at the edge of a traffic circle just down from the barricades, and memorialized his name in graffiti.
Not to speak ill of the dead, but Lee accidentally offed himself in defense of a subsidy and tariff regime that is particularly heinous. Korean rice farmers are both subsidized and sheltered from foreign competition, with the end result of a local price of rice four times as much as in the U.S., for a food that is a staple of Asian cuisine. The farmers are made rich at the expense of everyone else.
In fact, self-interest was a common thread among many protesters. In the name of “fairness” many European unionists, subsidized farmers, and various enviro types want to game the system by attacking the international mediating institutions like the WTO, that sometimes facilitate the freer flow of goods and services. That the activists stand to benefit mightily from the imposition of “fair trade” is true, but considered an obnoxious observation. People convinced of their own virtue are not amused when presented with irrefutable evidence of their own hypocrisy.
Which is the niche that Bureaucrash was made to fill. For our first “Crash,” we targeted the hotel where Heinrich Böll Foundation representatives were staying. We hung fliers on every door. These fliers pointed out that, while Böll representatives were stumping for fair trade, including strict labor standards and high wages, the maids in the hotel were working for the equivalent of $6 a day. The fliers were meant to question whether Böll and other “fair trade” NGO reps had negotiated a higher price for their room, or left a giant tip, or had they merely participated in the exploitation of these poor workers?
Fairness was the overriding concern for the folks marching to the barricades, but no one really knew how to define or achieve it. So we decided to set up a “fair trade soda stand” along the parade route on Saturday. We offered Coke, Sprite, and water to the hot and bothered activists. The catch was that they could choose from two options: the free trade and the fair trade price. The sign for the fair price (20 pesos) explained that the price included the true cost of the drink plus: health care, environmental protections, taxes and other welfareish provisions; while the free trade price (5 pesos) included only the true cost of the beverage.
At first, this enterprise drew a lot of very confused looks and some yelling. But a few customers finally grew thirsty enough to brave the looks the others were shooting at them. We made seven sales — two at the fair trade price and five at the free trade rate. Just as business was picking up, however, a young lady approached us, read the sign, and promptly threw a hissy fit.
“You can’t be here; you’re misrepresenting what fair trade is! It doesn’t involve products from multi-national corporations; you have to have local diversity!” she seethed, while clutching her Sony Handycam.
This drew the attention of the anarchist section of the parade. Unlike the Nirvana cheerleaders, these lads, toting spray paint and broom handles, didn’t seem too amused with our little beverage stand. They formed a human trade barrier by encircling our booth, holding hands, and glowering at us. At this point, we decided it best to leave rather than risk reprisal.
Once we disbursed, I spent the rest of the day trailing the march and the attack on the barricades. The anarchists had prepared two battering rams, consisting of a telephone pole strapped to a trash dumpster and a palm tree mounted on a Wal-Mart shopping cart. However, the Koreans had brought a much more effective tool: ropes. Like some kind of medieval army, they used the lines to pull down the barricades and then the feces-tossing began. Activists literally began hurling buckets of liquid waste at police officers, and the scene, as they say, got ugly. And I got out of there.
Later, I saw a Mexican taxi with, “Visitors: Cancun is our home. Please treat it with respect” stenciled on the rear window, and they might have done well to heed that advice. The self-proclaimed defenders of local peoples and supporters of fairness demonstrated their love for the locals by trashing part of the city and spray painting anti-WTO slogans all over homes and small businesses near the parade route. One read “dinero = mierda.”
That the breakdown in this round of WTO talks coincided with the fracas in the streets created a great sense of accomplishment for the protesters but, in truth, the anti-globalization movement does not garner nearly the support that it once did. In Seattle, it was explosive. At the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas Summit in Quebec, in the Spring of 2001, it was less imposing but still impressive. But now it has been reduced to ridiculous clichés, self-immolation, and the worst sort of potty humor. That’s not a movement, it’s a cry for help.
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