Cumbre de las Américas - Mar del Plata, Argentina 4 y 5 de Noviembre de 2005

Thousands protest Bush in Argentina
By Mary Milliken and Kevin Gray

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) - Thousands of marchers on the streets of a heavily policed Argentine resort protested on Friday against U.S. President George W. Bush and his free-trade push as leaders from the Americas convened for a contentious debate on improving Latin America's economy.

The protesters' voice inside the summit meeting room will be Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the leftist leader who opposes Bush's economic model. He arrived early Friday vowing to stop the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA.

"I think we came here to bury FTAA. I brought my shovel," Chavez told reporters.

Chavez is due to speak at an alternative Peoples' Summit at midday before the two-day meeting of leaders begins in the afternoon.

A train sponsored by Chavez pulled in at dawn Friday carrying celebrity sympathizers including Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona and joined busloads of university students, rights activists and labor-union members.

Marchers urged the region's leaders to pursue options to the U.S.-backed free-market recipes that dominated here in the 1990s, but failed to reduce poverty and inequality.

"We are here to show our proposals and alternatives to build a new dawn in Latin America," said Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner and author Adolfo Perez Esquivel.

While protests were so far peaceful and kept far from the meeting's hotel, more radical groups were expected to challenge the several rings of police security in downtown Mar del Plata. A flotilla of coast-guard boats and helicopters patrolled the shore.

Schools and most businesses were closed. Shop windows were boarded up against possible violence and looting, while U.S. interests like Citibank branches and Blockbuster video stores were armored with corrugated metal.


Outside of the Middle East, South America may be one of the most hostile places to U.S. policies, despite Bush vows upon taking office that Latin America was a top-foreign policy priority. Many in the region feel Washington meddled too much in the past in economics and politics and then ignored the region to focus on the war on terror.

While the emerging markets of Asia roared ahead in the last 20 years, Latin America's economies, rich with minerals, gas and farmland, fell into a cycle of boom and bust.

Nowhere is that more evident than in summit host country Argentina, the model student in free-market policies that collapsed in 2001 under a burden of $100 billion in debt and saw a chunk of its middle class plunge toward poverty.

"Free trade means big U.S. and European corporations gobbling up our companies and national interests," said Pedro Moreira, a 69-year-old unemployed Argentine who carried a sign reading "Get out Bush. Another world is possible."

But Bush, who arrived in Mar del Plata late Thursday for his first visit to Argentina, had free trade at the top of his agenda. Washington hopes to anchor a commitment to revive talks for the FTAA in 2006 after opposition from Latin America's big economies over U.S. agriculture subsidies stopped it from entering into force this year.

He comes to the meeting with Latin leaders with waning popularity at home.

For the first time in his presidency, a majority of Americans questioned President George W. Bush's personal integrity as his approval ratings on key issues fell to new lows in an ABC News/Washington Post poll published on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Magdalena Morales in Caracas and Patricia Avila in Mar del Plata)

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