Protesters are planning marches to disrupt the final full day of the Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization, or WTO, in Mexico's Caribbean coastal resort of Cancun. Meanwhile, negotiators from 148 nations appear to be making progress on a number of thorny trade issues.
WTO spokesmen say there are signs of progress in behind the scenes negotiations between industrialized nations and poor nations over such issues as agricultural subsidies and trade barriers to commodities from the developing world.
Trade ministers involved in the discussions here in Cancun are now at what one observer calls "crunch time." With the meeting scheduled to end Sunday, they are feeling the pressure to make substantial progress toward a comprehensive, multilateral trade agreement by the end of 2004.
Arancha Gonzalez, spokesperson for the European Union, says the ministers are working hard to resolve differences in a sincere effort to meet that self-imposed deadline.
"They have shown and demonstrated that they are willing to reach an agreement," she said. "Now, whether or not the agreement will be reached by the end of 2004, the jury is out." A Mexican official close to the talks downplays the dispute between poor and rich nations, saying that ministers are more focused on practical matters, with alliances being formed based on mutual interests, rather than any north-south divide.
The failure of negotiators to resolve many of the most vexing issues at previous meetings has put the whole WTO process in jeopardy. Some participants have expressed concern that, if the ministers do not at least address a few of the major problems here in Cancun, the whole effort may falter.
The WTO meetings here are being held on a barrier island and guarded closely by Mexican federal police, but at least a few dozen anti-trade demonstrators made their way to the convention center meeting site on Friday. They held a peaceful sit down (protest) in front of the building for about two hours before dispersing.
Most of the several thousand protesters who came to this meeting from around the world have been peaceful, but a few more radical groups have engaged in fights with the police. Protest organizers plan a massive march in the hours ahead, and police are concerned about the possibility of a violent clash.