President Bush left the country before the conclusion of a two-day summit here as key South American leaders rejected the White House's vision for a free-trade zone that would stretch from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America.
Fierce opposition from the populist presidents of the continent's three largest economies -- Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela -- thwarted the resuscitation of the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA.
"There are two points of view on the continent," said Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa, referring to the five dissenting nations, including Uruguay and Paraguay. The five nations account for more than half of the continent's economic activity.
Senior administration officials immediately disputed the notion that the session was a failure for Bush, noting that 29 of the 34 participating nations favored the trade pact, and that the summit's final document calls for further talks next year.
"Isn't that in itself an important accomplishment?" one administration official said.
But coming amid lackluster poll numbers for the president back home, some observers called the talks' collapse another disappointment for Bush.
"I don't think Bush would have gone down there if he knew he'd run into this kind of opposition," said Mark Weisbrot, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "The FTAA may not be completely dead, but it's close to dead -- and the body's twitching."
Bush's principal South American antagonist, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, deemed the outcome an unequivocal victory for critics who say open markets can lead to further poverty by opening the door to plunder by powerful foreign interests.
"The great loser today was George W. Bush. The man went away wounded," a triumphant Chavez told reporters here, alluding to the president's quick departure. "You could see defeat on his face."
Throughout much of the day, mystery surrounded the fate of the proposed free-trade zone, as ministers huddled behind closed doors in an effort to craft a solution. Several news conferences called to discuss the summit's final document were postponed.
At one point, it was rumored that Bush, hopeful of a definitive final statement, would stay beyond his scheduled 4 p.m. departure. That turned out not to be true: Air Force One lifted off into the azure sky above the choppy Atlantic just a few minutes behind schedule -- and before the document was finalized.
The usual post-summit photo opportunity with beaming heads of state was conspicuously absent: By the time the final declaration was completed, most of the presidents had, like Bush, left the city.
As Bush flew on to the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, a senior administration official aboard Air Force One insisted that some good had come of the summit, and then all but acknowledged that the negotiations had failed.
"It's disadvantaged by the fact that, of course, most of the leaders have left, and in the end of the day, the whole point of these summits is to be a summit of the leaders," the official said. "I think our view is the summit declaration in a way is a lot less important. What's important is the leaders got together, they had this good conversation."
The final summit document, completed six hours after deadline, included two distinct views: the opinion of Washington and the 28 other countries that backed the creation of the trade accord, and the five dissenters' view that the imposition of a hemispheric free-market zone would harm certain countries.
"The conditions do not exist to attain a hemispheric free-trade accord that is balanced and fair with access to markets [and] free of subsidies and distorted commercial practices," the dissenters wrote.
A third point, put forward by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, commits officials to "explore both positions" during a future meeting.
In the end, a summit that was meant to be a symbol of hemispheric unity showcased just how polarized the issue of free trade has become, more than a decade after the pioneering North American Free Trade Agreement brought down commercial barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada.
The enduring image of the summit may be the limited rioting that took place Friday night and broadcast worldwide, overshadowing much larger peaceful protests earlier in the day. There were no injuries, and Mar del Plata, along the Atlantic 250 miles south of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, was peaceful Saturday.
The lack of a closing declaration delivered by chief executives -- generally a standard feature of global summits -- underscored the polarized nature of the free-trade issue. The fiercest debate of the sessions focused on the hemispheric treaty, an idea that has been on the table for more than a decade but hasn't advanced much beyond the talking stage. The Bush administration had hoped to change that this weekend.
Carrying the sword here for the administration was a close ally, Mexican President Vicente Fox, who began the day with a news conference that included an impassioned plea for approving the free-trade scheme before time ran out.
"If we keep losing time, if we keep reinventing the wheel, if we keep discussing the same ideas without deciding, the only ones we are sacrificing are our poor," declared Fox, who maintains that free trade with the United States and Canada has brought jobs and improved living standards to Mexico. "We are creating more poor, we are closing the door to opportunities."
The Mexican president urged leaders of the 29 nations in favor of hemispheric global integration to proceed with their plans, even without the five dissenting nations.
Representatives of Argentina and Brazil, the continent's major agricultural producers, insisted that they favored the concept of economic integration. But they said they feared that their products could not easily compete with heavily subsidized U.S. foodstuffs.
"Free trade is very important if we respect equality among nations, that we keep in mind the need to help and be generous with poorer countries," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told reporters Saturday.
Complicating matters throughout the discussions was the summit's heavily politicized shadow struggle: That confrontation pitted Bush, mired in a second-term slump and extremely unpopular in Latin America, against his Venezuelan counterpart, who is a fiery populist and acolyte of Fidel Castro.
So, on one very visible level, the free-trade debate disintegrated into a kind of mano a mano between Bush and Chavez, a turn of events that tainted the entire discussion, even if the much-anticipated face-to-face meeting of Bush and Chavez never materialized.
The Bush-Chavez conflict rendered matters especially uncomfortable for the free-trade proposal's other major opponents -- the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. None were especially eager to give a black eye to Bush, but neither were they keen to draw the rhetorical wrath of Chavez or throw in the towel on an issue many feel strongly about.
Their independence illustrates how Latin America, now with many left-leaning governments, has changed since the Cold War era, when U.S.-backed strongmen generally went along with Washington's wishes.
Opponents of the free-trade accord such as Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, whose nation suffered a 2001-2002 economic collapse that many blame on commerce run amok, have stressed that their opposition is based on what they view as a generally unfair definition of what constitutes free trade.
And although Chavez and other critics may have crowed over the outcome, other observers said the U.S. president probably did more good than harm just by showing up at the summit -- despite weeks of rumors indicating that he would not come because of security and other concerns.
"Latin America needs to be reassured that the Bush administration cares," said David de Ferranti, a Latin American analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.