Bush Leaves Troubles at Home to Face Critics in Latin America

Times Staff Writers

President Bush, mired in a second-term slump, is scheduled to arrive today in this Argentine seaside resort where protesters are gathering and security is extremely tight for the 34-nation Summit of the Americas.

The president’s five-day trip to Latin America -- he heads to Brazil and Panama after attending the opening session of the summit Friday -- could be a welcome distraction from recent woes. “It can’t hurt the president to remove himself from the current context of scandals, miscues and partisanship and put him in a statesman setting,” said Charlie Cook, a Washington-based independent political analyst.

But Bush’s trip is unlikely to be completely smooth. The summit will bring him face to face with critics such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other leaders opposed to the Iraq war and resistant to the U.S. push for expanded free trade.

A recent poll showed that 17% of Argentine elites in business, government and education, and 12% in Brazil, gave Bush a positive job-approval rating. And although some Latin American lawmakers have complained that U.S. officials are distracted by the Iraq war and ignoring the region, the Miami Herald/University of Miami Business School/Zogby Latin American Elite Poll found deep divisions about whether Washington should pay more attention to its southern neighbors.

The two-day summit’s official agenda speaks of “creating jobs to confront poverty and strengthen democratic government.” But with leaders divided over the best way to create jobs, few expect major breakthroughs.


Leaders in Argentina, Brazil and several other countries are less than eager to embrace U.S. efforts to revive the moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas, a free-trade zone blueprint that has stalled because of differences on subsidies and market access. Analysts say U.S. negotiators, aided by free-trade allies from Mexico and Chile, are likely to try to include some mention of the free trade area in the summit’s final text.

A “People’s Summit,” to be staged in a stadium here, is expected to draw thousands of activists protesting globalization, Bush and the war in Iraq. Among them is expected to be Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who plans to travel with a trainload of Bush critics from Buenos Aires, 250 miles to the north. Argentina’s home-grown piquetero movement, protesters known for blocking roads and confronting authorities in sometimes violent clashes, has pledged to descend here in force.

Chavez has been invited to the “anti-summit,” and organizers are hopeful that attendees will include Evo Morales, a Chavez admirer and the leading candidate in next month’s Bolivian presidential election. Morales’ promise to legalize the growing of coca, from which cocaine is derived, has angered Washington.

In a round-table interview with Latin American journalists this week, Bush described the trip as part of his effort “to have a good relationship in the neighborhood.” He did not dispute a questioner’s view that there was “growing anti-Americanism” in the region.

“Look, I understand not everybody agrees with the decisions I’ve made, but that’s not unique to Central or South America,” Bush said, according to a transcript released Wednesday. “But that’s what happens when you make decisions.”

Many will be watching the body language between Bush and Chavez as they gather for joint sessions. U.S. officials are wary of Chavez’s close ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and fear the Venezuelan president may be trying to influence neighboring countries by supporting radical leftist groups. Chavez, meanwhile, has accused the Bush administration of trying to topple his democratically elected administration.

But many here predict that Chavez is unlikely to stir a ruckus, in deference to Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, himself a left-leaning populist and nominal host of the event.

More than 10,000 police and security agents are expected to be deployed for the summit, and Argentine navy vessels will be posted off the coast. Most commercial flights in the area will be suspended once the talks begin.

In preparation for the summit, this somewhat worn-down resort town has undergone a large-scale cleanup that some say recalls its 1970s glory days. Boulevards have been widened, shrubbery planted, buildings painted and new structures and street lighting erected.

But many residents worry that trouble could break out as the summit gets underway.

“We know there are groups that want to destroy and will try to cross the [police] barriers,” university professor Maria Florencia Ceci said. “Friday I’m staying home. They say the city will be complete chaos.”


Chen reported from Washington and McDonnell from Mar del Plata. Andres D’Alessandro in The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.