San Diego Union Tribune

November 5, 2005

Anti-U.S. violence flares up at summit
Bush, Chávez clash over hemispheric trade accord

By Finlay Lewis

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina – President Bush pressed his free trade agenda yesterday at the opening session of a hemispheric summit in the face of a challenge by Venezuela's leftist leader Hugo Chávez and street violence by anti-American protesters.

The disagreement between Bush and Chávez over trade unfolded against the backdrop of a peaceful demonstration that turned unruly by evening. About 1,000 rock-throwing protesters burned an American flag and threw a gasoline bomb that ignited a blaze in a downtown bank at this seaside resort of 600,000 people.

Argentine police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets as they contained the unrest to about a six-block area less than a mile from the luxury hotel where Bush and the leaders of 33 other nations met in the opening session of the two-day Summit of the Americas. The purpose of the summit is to devise strategies for reducing poverty, promoting economic growth and advancing the cause of political reform.

The unrest grew after Chávez delivered a two-hour address to a crowd of about 10,000 at a local soccer stadium. The throng enthusiastically embraced his anti-American remarks, which included a salute to Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in action.

Speaking in front of a six-story banner of Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, Chávez declared, "Only united can we defeat imperialism and bring our people a better life."

Later, the Venezuelan president joined Bush and the other leaders at the summit just as the protests began turning ugly.

The summit's host, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, criticized the U.S. administration for backing International Monetary Fund policies that Kirchner blamed for his country's economic collapse five years ago.

He urged Bush to exercise "responsible leadership" in the hemisphere.

Earlier, Bush praised Kirchner's leadership for restoring economic growth to his country. He also said that Kirchner's success should strengthen Argentina's hand in loan negotiations with the IMF, an institution many critics in the region consider too closely allied with Washington's favored policies.

Bush's woes extended beyond the criticism from Kirchner and Chávez. U.S. reporters asked him about the political woes caused by last week's indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

Bush deflected those questions and tried to focus on the summit's agenda – the same issues Chávez proclaimed he was here to defeat.

Chávez arrived in the morning to declare that a proposed hemisphere-wide trade deal backed by the Bush administration is "dead," adding, "We are going to bury it here. We are here to change the course of history."

Bush promoted his trade agenda with the other leaders, many of whom disagree with Chávez and support Bush on trade.

But the protesters were solidly with Chávez.

The demonstrations began early with the downtown streets ringing with chants of "Fascist Bush! You are the terrorist" and "Get out, Bush."

The protesters included celebrities such as Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona and the Bolivian grass-roots politician Evo Morales. Many had come by train from other cities. After the rally, some demonstrators formed small groups, smashing store windows with bricks and setting bonfires of looted furniture in the largely deserted downtown area.

By evening, riots were reported in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, where vandals set fire to a McDonald's restaurant.

"It is not easy to host all these countries," said Bush as he and Kirchner appeared before reporters after their morning meeting. "It's particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me."

They took no questions, while Latin American reporters said that Kirchner, a critic of U.S. policies in Iraq and in the hemisphere, used the Spanish word for "raw" to describe the session. Bush characterized it as a "good, honest discussion."

In a brief session with reporters, Bush said he would be civil if he met face-to-face with Chávez at the summit.

"I will, of course, be polite. That's what the American people expect their president to do, is to be a polite person," Bush said.

Bush met in the morning with the leaders of Central American and Andean countries – minus Venezuela – to discuss trade.

Free trade has emerged as a flash point dividing Bush not only from Chávez but also, for different reasons, from Argentina and Brazil. While the Venezuelan leader dismisses free trade as a ploy to benefit the rich, leaders of the other two countries are balking at a Free Trade Area of the Americas unless the United States agrees to open its markets more fully to agricultural imports.

Still, there were some signs of progress on the trade zone, an idea broached at the first hemispheric summit 11 years ago but lately sidetracked while global trade negotiators haggle over the issue of agricultural subsidies.

Mexican President Vicente Fox said 29 of the 34 nations at the summit would like to bring the trade zone to a conclusion. The holdouts are Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Uruguay. With the exception of Venezuela, all of the holdouts are members of Mercosur, a regional trade bloc.

It received a vote of confidence from Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who said, "We, the majority of the presidents have come here to reiterate our firm resolve and commitment to free trade, to an economic opening and to programs that generate employment."

Bush has followed a strategy of negotiating free-trade deals with Central American countries and a bloc from the Andean region – Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.

He has argued that expanded trade offers the best opportunity for raising living standards and incomes across the region.

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

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