When I was learning Spanish, the mnemonic I used to remember the word for failure, fracaso, was the near-cognate "fracas," as in donnybrook or brawl. Put those two concepts together and you get a pretty good description of President Bush's weekend trip to Latin America.

The only good news is that Bush and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, the economic and political giant of South America, continue to enjoy a cordial and constructive relationship. That didn't get either man very far toward his objectives, but at least it's something. Otherwise, at the Summit of the Americas, there was basically fracaso in the meeting rooms and a whole lot of fracas in the streets.

Mar del Plata, the beach resort where the hemisphere's leaders -- minus one -- gathered for their summitry, was the perfect place for Bush to see why discontent is mounting throughout Latin America and why the region's political center of gravity is shifting left. Argentina's elegant, perpetually suntanned upper crust wouldn't be caught dead in Mar del Plata, preferring instead to hop across the River Plate to Uruguay and luxuriate in glamorous Punta del Este. Mar del Plata is where Argentina's middle class vacations -- or used to, back in the day. When they could afford it.

More than a decade after Washington's free-market orthodoxy was firmly installed, the rich in Latin America remain gloriously rich. The poor remain miserably poor. And the middle class is being squeezed so hard that they must feel like quoting Marvin Gaye: "Makes me wanna holler."

The "minus one" who didn't attend the summit was Fidel Castro of Cuba, since only democratically elected leaders were invited. But Castro's protege, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, played Castro's traditional role so effectively that I'm starting to wonder who's Batman and who's Robin in this leftist dynamic duo. Chavez had the cheek to duck out of the summit and convene a huge rally in the local soccer stadium to denounce Bush and everything he stands for. Chavez's stunt demonstrated the expanding, cross-border reach of his own popularity -- and, by implication, the political peril for other Latin presidents who would let themselves be seen as Washington's lap dogs.

If the other summiteers needed any further reminder, there were the large -- and at times violent -- anti-U.S., anti-free-trade, anti-globalization demonstrations in the streets. So, barely a decade after Argentina's foreign minister boasted of seeking "carnal relations" with the United States, there was no Last Tango in Mar del Plata, or even a First Tango for that matter. Bush came to sell the idea of a free-trade zone embracing the whole hemisphere, but nobody wanted to dance.

Bush gracefully acknowledged that it wasn't easy for President Nestor Kirchner to host the summit -- "particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me." But it can't have been easy for Bush to hear protesters in the streets denouncing him with old-school "yanqui go home" chants, while cheering his oil-rich nemesis Chavez. The irony is that Latin America is one of the few parts of the world where the Bush administration has gotten it mostly right.

On Cuba, to be sure, Bush has gotten it wrong. His aggressive rhetoric, his draconian tightening of the travel ban and his appointment of a State Department official to plan the island's post-Castro "transition" may have won the Republican Party some votes in South Florida. But these provocations have only strengthened Castro's unchallenged standing at home, giving him an excuse to crack down on dissent -- and new determination to outlast yet another American president. George W. Bush would be his tenth.

But the administration has shown rare poise, and even subtlety, in dealing with the region's tectonic shift to the left. Bush has maintained good relations with Kirchner and Lula, both of whom are products of the leftward trend, and thus far has shown no apoplexy at the prospect that Mexico might also move to the left in next year's presidential election.

The wild card is Chavez. So far the U.S. administration's policy toward Venezuela has followed two tracks. Bush and other officials denounce Chavez at every turn, while at the same time the United States fills his coffers by buying as much Venezuelan oil as possible. Chavez paints Bush as the devil incarnate, while being careful not to actually do anything concrete that might upset the business relationship.

But the rhetoric on both sides is getting dangerously hot -- Chavez keeps warning of a possible U.S. invasion, and Bush speaks ominously of "two competing visions" for Latin America. Forcing the region into a stark "with us or against us" choice would be a historic mistake, because I'm afraid we saw in Mar del Plata which vision plays better in the streets.


Members of the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

demonstrate against President Bush on Friday.

The banner says "Get out, Bush."