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U.S. a Target at Summit in Argentina

Times Staff Writers

A hemispheric summit to promote job creation and the spread of democracy throughout the Americas opened here Friday amid raucous anti-U.S. demonstrations and deep divisions among participating nations over the Bush administration’s free-trade agenda.

A group of about 200 protesters attempting to breach the security cordon around the meeting site clashed with riot police about six blocks from the hotel where President Bush and other heads of state were meeting.

The protesters hurled rocks; set fire to a bank, apparently using a Molotov cocktail; and broke windows on more than a dozen shops, authorities said. Some of the protesters covered their faces with clothing to conceal their identities.

Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and more than 50 demonstrators were arrested. No serious injuries were reported. The protesters were unable to enter the cordoned-off security zone, which includes much of the downtown beachfront area of this seaside resort.

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Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of protesters marched peacefully, if boisterously, through the streets calling for Bush to be expelled from Argentina. The demonstrators later cheered Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez when he labeled Washington’s free-trade proposal dead and buried during a lengthy address after an alternative “people’s summit.”

“Mar del Plata is the tomb of ALCA,” Chavez said, using the Spanish acronym for the Free Trade Area of the Americas plan backed by the White House.

“We brought our shovels to bury it,” declared the fiery populist, who has emerged as the administration’s leading antagonist in South America.

All eyes here were on the two rival presidents: Bush, suffering setbacks at home and unpopular in Latin America, and Chavez, the firebrand friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro who has repeatedly accused Washington of seeking to overthrow him and invade his oil-rich nation. But by Friday evening, the two leaders had not met face to face.

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“I will, of course, be polite,” Bush said when asked how he would react if confronted by Chavez. “That’s what the American people expect their president to do -- is to be a polite person. And I will -- if I run across him, I will do just that.”

The White House and its leading free-trade allies here, Mexico and Chile, are pushing for a resuscitation of the hemispheric open-markets plan, which would create a unified trade bloc from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina and Chile.

The proposal has been on the table for more than a decade, but host nation Argentina and several other South American nations have opposed it because of concerns about market access, subsidies to U.S. farmers and other issues.

Free trade has emerged as both a substantive and symbolic dispute here, underscoring deep philosophic differences between Washington and left-leaning elected governments in South America.

Although the White House calls open markets a tool to broaden economic progress, many in Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere fear market liberalization could lead to the plundering of their natural resources and depletion of national assets by multinational corporations.

That, they argue, would result in increased economic woes in a region where poverty is already endemic. Many also criticize the U.S. insistence on maintaining its agricultural subsidies while demanding that other countries, which by and large do not subsidize their farmers, open up their markets.

Many of the heads of state at the summit have risen to power as a result of disenchantment with what has become known as the Washington consensus, an agenda of economic liberalization and privatization that the U.S. has pushed for years as a strategy for economic growth. The policies did not provide prosperity, critics say, and left social inequities in place.

Philosophical differences about the role of government in the economy remain sharp, especially in Argentina, where many blame the financial meltdown of 2001 and 2002 on rapid liberalization in the preceding years.

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The economy here has seen steady improvement recently, but many once solidly middle-class families live at or below the poverty line. It is estimated that currently, one-third of the Argentine population is impoverished.

“It is the state that should act to redress social inequalities,” Argentine President Nestor Kirchner declared in his opening statement at the Hotel Hermitage, where the summit is being held.

It remained unclear whether the Bush administration would be successful in including any consensus language preserving the hemispheric free-trade concept in the summit’s final declaration, expected today.

Government leaders and their aides have bemoaned the sharp differences evident at a forum designed to project an image of unity.

“This summit is very politicized,” said a disenchanted Mexican President Vicente Fox, a close Bush ally who backs the expanded free-trade plan.

The Brazilian foreign affairs secretary, Celso Amorim, told journalists that the forum could neither bury nor revive the free-trade plan.

“The debate has become too ideological,” Amorim said.

Some participants mentioned the possibility of an extended free-trade regimen absent Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and other opponents, an outcome that would highlight hemispheric economic fissures. Washington already has free-trade pacts with Mexico, Canada, Chile and Central America, and is negotiating others.

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In his comments, Bush appeared to engage in quiet diplomacy as he promoted trade and good governance.

“This is an opportunity to positively affirm our belief in democracy, in human rights and human dignity,” Bush said during a joint appearance with the Argentine president, a left-of-center populist.

Both men described their discussions as candid. Bush indicated that he declined during the meeting to back additional efforts by Argentina to negotiate favorable treatment by the International Monetary Fund. Earlier this year, with U.S. support, Argentina completed a renegotiation of about $103 billion in defaulted debt.

“I listened very carefully to his point of view,” Bush told reporters. “I was pleased that the United States was helpful during the early part of his term at the IMF, and I suggested that his record is such now that he can take his case to the IMF with a much stronger hand.”

Later, Kirchner held a separate session with Chavez.

The summit’s opening ceremony lasted nearly two hours, almost double the scheduled duration. It prompted speculation that the extension was intended to avoid sending the leaders back out on the streets. As Bush’s motorcade finally left the summit site, police sirens could be heard in the distance.

Most of Friday’s protests, which involved more than 30,000 marchers, according to unofficial estimates here, were peaceful but intensely anti-Bush. The U.S. president was lampooned in banners as a vampire, devil and warmonger. U.S. presidents are seldom well-liked in Latin America, but experts say Bush -- whose Middle East and economic policies are extremely controversial here -- is among the least popular in recent memory.

It was unlikely Bush saw any of the large-scale protests, which unfolded about two miles from the upscale seaside strip where meetings are taking place and he and other presidents are lodging. However, the smaller clashes with riot police took place much closer to the summit zone.

Marchers at the larger protests, many of whom arrived in more than 1,000 buses from Buenos Aires, included demonstrators ranging from women in indigenous dress to middle-class professionals.

The image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine militant who joined the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro and was later killed in Bolivia, was ubiquitous.

“We are making a statement against ... hunger and poverty,” said Jordan Carriles, 28, one of several hundred Cubans who attended the alternate summit and protest march, which was held in a steady rain.

Cuba was not among the 34 nations invited to the summit, but Havana dispatched a large delegation of activists, artists and others, including Silvio Rodriguez, a well-known singer of protest and love songs, to the alternate summit staged at the soccer stadium.

Many Cubans donned colorful track suits with “Cuba” emblazoned on the back as they marched more than half a mile to the stadium, often breaking into anti-U.S. chants.

Leading a train-load of protesters from Buenos Aires was Diego Armando Maradona, the ex-soccer star and current talk-show host who wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with Bush’s smiling image and the title, in English: “War Criminal.”

Among those marching in the rain was another Chavez admirer, Evo Morales, the firebrand Bolivian leader who is ahead in polls for presidential elections scheduled for Dec. 18. Morales has called for lifting limits on planting coca, the raw material for cocaine, a position that Washington says would harm its anti-drug efforts in the region.

It was later in the day when the splinter group of protesters clashed with riot police at one of the fenced-off streets leading to the summit zone, which was protected by rings of security and several thousand policemen.

The city of 600,000 had a deserted feel, with most schools and shops closed as residents braced for violence.

Protesters also marched Friday against Bush and his free-trade plans in other Latin American cities, including Buenos Aires; Brasilia, Brazil; Caracas, Venezuela; Panama City and Montevideo, Uruguay.

Chavez repeated his accusations against the United States during his two-hour, rain-drenched speech Friday to protesters at the city’s main soccer stadium.

“If imperialism decides to invade Venezuela,” Chavez told the crowd, “a war of 100 years would begin in these lands.”

Bush and Chavez were among the heads of state who gathered for a group photograph on Friday with an Atlantic Ocean backdrop. But the two were in separate rows and there was no obvious visual contact.

Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.


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