By Monte Reel and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 5, 2005
MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina, Nov. 4 -- Anti-American demonstrators torched storefronts and battled police Friday in this Atlantic resort following a large, peaceful protest, spearheaded by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, over President Bush's plans to revive a free trade accord at a regional summit.
While Bush held closed-door meetings with allies among the 33 other presidents attending the fourth Summit of the Americas, Chavez antagonized him from the sidelines, rallying thousands of supporters in a nearby soccer stadium with a promise to bury U.S.-style capitalism throughout Latin America.
"Each one of us brought a shovel, a gravedigger's shovel, because here in Mar del Plata is the tomb of the Free Trade Area of the Americas," Chavez told the cheering crowd of 40,000 at the noon rally. The flamboyant Venezuelan leader has cast himself as Latin America's revolutionary alternative to Bush and U.S. economic policies.
The protesters included celebrities such as the 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.
Security officials fired tear gas and erected roadblocks around the summit headquarters. By evening, riots were also reported in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, where vandals set fire to a McDonald's restaurant.
At the summit, Bush and some of the Latin American participants sought ways to compromise on the decade-old regional trade proposal, which has been stalled by disagreements over U.S. and European farm subsidies. Some countries argue such subsidies would tilt the trade balance unfairly against Latin America.
Despite deepening skepticism about the benefits of free trade across a stubbornly poor region where the wealth gap has grown in recent years, Bush maintains that the accord would eventually create jobs and reduce poverty.
Mexican President Vicente Fox said that 29 of the governments represented at the summit generally support the trade pact, and he proposed an alternative agreement that would exclude dissenters.
Bush spent much of the day pressing his case with presidents of countries that do not share Chavez's animosity toward free trade, including Colombia, Peru and several Central American nations.
Thomas A. Shannon Jr., assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, insisted that the idea of a vast hemispheric trade pact remains viable, saying there was still "significant support within the region for economic integration and for a Free Trade Area of the Americas."
Bush also met with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, a populist who has been lukewarm about some aspects of the free trade agenda. Bush thanked Kirchner after the meeting, saying, "It's not easy to host all these countries. It's particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me."
Kirchner said he was "very satisfied" with his "candid" talks with Bush. But both Argentina and Brazil, the region's agricultural giants, continued to express reservations about a free trade pact.
Chavez was expected to participate in the summit, which is scheduled to conclude Saturday, and Bush told reporters he would greet the Venezuelan courteously if they met face to face.
"I will of course be polite," Bush said. "That's what the American people expect their president to do, be a polite person."
But at the official portrait of summit participants, the two men were seated far apart. For the rest of the day, Chavez assumed the role of gleeful outside provocateur, whipping up the stadium crowd that roared its antipathy to Bush before spilling into the streets.
"We thought maybe we'd be able to avoid something like this happening here, but a lot of people are very angry," said Maria Paula Arevala, 30, a law student who watched the rioting from a street corner.
Much of the public's animus was aimed directly at Bush. Hundreds of protesters had traveled through the night from Buenos Aires in a mass pilgrimage led by Maradona. Carrying signs comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler, the protesters chanted in unison as they filed into the stadium: "Bush, the fascist! Bush the terrorist!"
Standing beside Chavez at the rally under a steady drizzle was Maradona, who had used his popular television talk show to urge Argentines to join the protest. The Nobel peace laureate Alfonso Perez Esquivel and several labor union representatives also attended.
Backed by a giant portrait of the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, Chavez addressed the crowd for more than two hours. He touched on many of his favorite themes: the injustice of U.S. economic policies, his opposition to the war in Iraq, his allegations of a U.S. plan to invade Venezuela and his dream of a "Bolivarian revolution" that would spread socialism throughout Latin America.
Beaming from the podium as the crowd chanted against Bush, Chavez donned a Cuban baseball hat and listed an eclectic group of role models that included Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro, the late Argentine politician Eva Peron, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr.
"If we are united, we can defeat imperialism and create a better life," Chavez said, portraying the United States as the main obstacle between Latin America and prosperity. "Just as the empire failed to stop the Cuban revolution, they also will fail to defeat the Bolivarian revolution."
Many people at the rally seemed inspired by Chavez and his defiant message.
"Chavez defends our countries," said Graciela Fleidas, 43, an unemployed textile worker from Merlo, Argentina. "We're looking for alternatives to the way the United States controls the world, and Chavez has something to say about that."
"We're a people united against free trade, because free trade is a policy of death for our countries," said Carlos H. Reyes, 54, of Honduras.