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Bush's Argentina visit ignites violent protests
Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times
MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — Acknowledging the hostility that greeted him at the Summit of the Americas, President Bush told his Argentine host Friday morning that organizing a summit is hard work — especially when Bush himself is a participant.
"It's not easy to host all these countries — particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me," Bush told Argentine President Néstor Kirchner after a morning meeting.
By day's end, events would show how right Bush was.
Masked protesters opposing everything from U.S. economic policies to the war in Iraq clashed with riot police in the beach city of Mar del Plata.
A group of about 200 hard-core protesters attempting to breach the security cordon around the meeting site became violent about six blocks from the hotel where Bush and other heads of state were meeting.
The protesters, some covering their faces with clothing, launched rocks with slingshots and withstood volleys of tear gas. They broke shop windows, destroyed phone booths and torched the American flag. And they nearly burned down a branch of Banco Galicia.
Although no serious injuries were reported, police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and more than 64 demonstrators were arrested.
But the fourth Summit of the Americas, bringing together the leaders of 34 nations, opened just about on schedule.
Anti-American protests also turned violent elsewhere as demonstrators attacked U.S. interests in other Argentine cities. Four police officers were injured in Rosario in clashes that followed an attack on a branch of U.S.-based Citibank.
In neighboring Uruguay, hooded protesters chanting anti-Bush slogans attacked bank buildings and shops, and shattered windows in an outburst swiftly quelled by riot police.
Mission: The Summit of the Americas, attended by leaders of 34 nations, is about economic development, poverty and a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone, proposed in 1994 but stalled over U.S. protectionism.
Protests: Critics of a free-trade pact say it echoes policies many blame for Latin America's economic woes. Others are protesting everything from the Iraq war to U.S. immigration policy.
The Associated Press
The violence broke out after a long day of peaceful protests, which involved more than 30,000 marchers, according to unofficial estimates here.
Some demonstrators arrived on an early morning train from Buenos Aires. Led by former Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, they spewed insults and cursed Bush, chanting, "Fascist Bush! You are the terrorist!" Others came by bus, toting signs praising leftist figures such as Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.
Chávez, the Venezuelan president who has challenged the United States with his rhetoric and policies, rallied thousands of labor leaders, peace activists and indigenous groups with a fiery speech at the Mar del Plata soccer stadium.
He took special aim at U.S.-led efforts to create a free-trade zone across the Western Hemisphere. Talks on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement have stalled, with Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and other South American states opposing attempts to open up Latin economies to more free-market approaches pushed by the U.S.
"To the tomb!" Chávez shouted. "All of us here have brought an undertaker's shovel, because here in Mar del Plata is the tomb of the FTAA."
Protesters cheered madly. They waved signs lampooning Bush as a devil and as a clown. They spoke of a new wave of leftist leaders across the continent: One banner featured giant portraits of Castro, Chávez, Kirchner and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Chávez painted his so-called Bolivarian Revolution in stark terms: socialist vs. capitalist. North vs. south. Rich vs. poor. He told the crowd Bush was planning to invade Venezuela, and whipped up his audience with a challenge:
"If it occurs to U.S. imperialism, in its desperation, to invade Venezuela, a 100-years' war will begin," Chávez said.
By Friday evening, Bush and Chávez had yet to have a much-anticipated encounter.
"Well, I will, of course, be polite," Bush said when asked how he would react if confronted by Chávez. "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 subsidies provided to U.S. farmers and other issues.
The free-trade dispute has emerged as a both a substantive and symbolic flashpoint here, underscoring deep philosophical differences between Washington and left-leaning elected governments in South America.
While the White House views open markets as 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 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.
It remains unclear if the Bush administration will be successful in including any consensus language preserving the hemisphere-wide free-trade concept in the summit's final declaration, expected today.
Additional information on the protests reported by The Associated Press.
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