In Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's version of Latin America, the leaders who concluded a two-day summit Saturday are poised to ignite a unified, region-wide socialist revolution that rejects U.S.-style capitalism outright.
But if the summit proved anything, it was that there is more to Latin America than Chavez.
Instead of backing their Venezuelan counterpart's rallying cry to bury a U.S.-backed proposal that would link markets throughout the Western Hemisphere, the leaders reluctantly agreed to discuss the proposal again during future talks. Cautious skepticism -- not Chavez's tone of enraged dismissal -- emerged as the strongest unifying force in a region exploring the possibility of greater independence from U.S. influence.
"Yesterday was very interesting," Chavez said Saturday about the differing opinions aired at the summit. "Some defended free trade, while we proposed various alternatives beyond the mirages of a free trade agreement."
It is not that most of the leaders do not want to be a part of a global economy, it is just that they say they want more input in defining the terms. Many share Chavez's desire for more expansive state-run social programs, but unlike the Venezuelan president -- whose economy is benefiting from record oil prices -- they are hesitant to alienate trading partners, including the United States, that might help fund those programs.
"We must create a kind of globalization that works for everyone," President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina said Friday, "and not just for a few."
In the past five years, a wave of populist or socialist leadership has spread across much of South America. Voters have veered left during the most recent elections in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile. In Ecuador and Bolivia, street protests urging more independence from free markets helped oust presidents this year.
Brazil, the dominant economy in South America, opposed the free trade pact on the grounds that farm subsidies unfairly benefit U.S. businesses, but it also distanced itself from Chavez's fiery proclamations that his South American colleagues would dig a grave for the proposal this week.
"We don't want to bury the agreement," said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, "and we don't want to resuscitate it, either."
Since Brazilian voters elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2003, the country has blurred the traditional lines between socialism and capitalism, incorporating a little from each. Like Chile's socialist president, Ricardo Lagos, Lula has championed free trade and fiscal discipline as ways to pay for the social programs -- community health clinics, literacy programs, educational centers -- that both say define their brand of social liberalism.
Most of the current generation of South American leaders -- including Lula, Kirchner, Lagos and President Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay -- came of age when the region was controlled by military dictatorships, and they formed their political identities by opposing the governments of the 1970s and 1980s. Because the United States backed many of those dictatorships in an effort to stop the international spread of communism, many of today's leaders have long questioned and criticized U.S. intentions.
"U.S. policy not only generated misery and poverty but also a great social tragedy that added to institutional instability in the region, provoking the fall of democratically elected governments," Kirchner said at the summit Friday.
Distrust of President Bush, particularly in military matters, has spiked in every part of Latin America since he launched the war in Iraq. A recent survey of Latin American professionals conducted by Zogby International showed that more than 80 percent of those surveyed had a negative opinion of Bush. That poor public standing has also eroded the overall image of the United States in some Latin American countries, according to a poll released earlier this year by the Canadian polling firm GlobeScan.
Many of Bush's critics have pointed to continued U.S. involvement in the drug war in Colombia and the recent deployment of about 400 U.S. troops in Paraguay for training exercises as troubling signs.
"He's responsible for attacking other countries and the human rights violations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the jails of Guantanomo," said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine Nobel peace laureate, who helped organize a peaceful march against Bush outside the summit Friday. "Now the U.S. is putting military troops all over South America. We must be very attentive to these things, because they have to do with the sovereignty of our people."
Concern over the perceived loss of national sovereignty has been particularly intense in the Andean region of South America, where large indigenous populations have been instrumental in street riots that toppled governments in Bolivia and Ecuador this year. Chavez's calls for more financial independence from U.S. corporate interests resonate most loudly here, where many associate multinational corporations with centuries of exploitation.
In Bolivia, Evo Morales has emerged as one of the strongest critics of Bush and free trade policies. The former head of a union of coca farmers, Morales joined Chavez in a stadium rally Friday to protest Bush and the free trade proposal Friday. Morales, the front-runner in polls ahead of the Dec. 18 presidential election, has embraced the Chavez model of a socialism free of U.S. dependence.
"We need to change the consolidation of capital that is held in just a few hands and help to distribute it more fairly," Morales said Friday while walking toward the rally among protesters shouting anti-U.S. chants. "In Bolivia, we're betting on the nationalization of the natural gas industry as a way to change ourselves from a colonial state to one that operates under a new model."
Morales said part of the model could sidestep economic relations with the United States in favor of increased trade with China. Chile and Brazil have also explored strengthening those ties, with mixed results. Brazil granted China market economy status last year, but a flood of inexpensive Chinese imports has undercut local producers, much to Lula's disappointment.
Chile, meanwhile, last week became the first Western country to sign a preliminary free trade agreement with China. But that does not mean Chile decided to follow Chavez's advice to look for socialist alternatives to U.S.-led trade deals. Before Chile inked the deal with China, the country signed a bilateral agreement with the United States.