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Officials, protesters plan for WTO meeting

Trade ministers prepare to dicker, and activists prepare to disrupt their talks in a Mexican resort city.

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 10, 2003

CANCUN, Mexico - Trade ministers from across the globe sought last-minute alliances Tuesday ahead of a World Trade Organization meeting, while opponents mapped out plans to derail the event in this Caribbean resort.

Some 4,700 delegates from the WTO's 146 member nations are holding a five-day meeting, starting today, with the aim of breaking the deadlock in the current round of trade liberalization negotiations.

Ministers held private meetings in small groups Tuesday to fix their positions ahead of the hard bargaining that is expected over the next few days.

The biggest issue is likely to be agriculture, where almost every country has its own interest and many are contradictory.

Ministers from the 17-nation Cairns Group of agricultural exporting nations, led by Australia, said their goal of getting countries like the European Union and the United States to slash their subsidies are identical to those of developing nations like India, which is fighting its corner hard.

"We face a common enemy - the enemy is the dumped surpluses, the subsidized exports," said New Zealand trade minister Jim Sutton.

Some Cairns Group members, including Brazil and Argentina, are among 20 developing countries who produced a proposal on reduction of subsidies that goes much further than the demands of the European Union and the United States.

"We both have the same goal: to have substantial reduction in the distortions that we have in international agricultural trade," said Martin Redrado, Argentina's secretary of international trade.

Ministers also will consider whether to open their economies to more foreign investment, which some say will drive local producers out of business. Another issue will be how to cut tariffs on industrial goods without shuttering factories and spurring unemployment.

The talks are supposed to lead to a binding treaty on reducing tariffs and subsidies. Governments have given themselves until the end of next year to complete the work.

Meanwhile, police increased security throughout Cancun, setting up various roadblocks to keep activists opposed to the WTO away from the delegates.

Antiglobalization campaigners, farmers and labor rights promoters plan a week of protests, saying trade can also increase poverty, encourage mistreatment of workers and the environment, and diminish cultural diversity.

About 1,000 protesters marched through Cancun city, carrying banners that read: "The planet is not for sale" and "Let's globalize resistance." Many covered their faces with bandanas and snorkel masks to protect against any tear gas used by police, but the protest ended peacefully.

Protesters say the WTO benefits big business at the expense of poor nations and the environment. WTO meetings have regularly attracted protests since Seattle in 1999, when the meeting was badly disrupted by thousands of protesters rioting in the streets.

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