Argentina braces for anti-Bush protests
By Kevin Gray
MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) – Shopkeepers boarded up
storefronts and residents fled town on Thursday as thousands of
demonstrators prepared to protest against U.S. President George
W. Bush at an Americas-wide presidential summit at this
Argentine seaside resort.
Bush arrived late on Thursday for the two-day Summit of the
Americas but sentiment against him runs high in Argentina due
to opposition to the Iraq war and to U.S.-backed, free-market
policies that many say pushed millions into poverty.
Leftist activists mostly from Latin America are holding an
alternative Peoples’ Summit and Bush’s main critic in the
region, leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was due to
speak in that forum on Friday.
The war of words between Bush and Chavez over trade and
development was expected to take center stage at the formal
summit, where Washington will urge Latin American states to
further open their economies.
“We hope protests are carried out in a peaceful way, but if
they are not, we are prepared to give wrongdoers a forceful
response,” said Federal Police commissioner Daniel Rodriguez.
“People see all the iron barricades and police on every
corner and they get scared,” said construction worker Hernan
Brito, who received five last-minute requests to board up store
windows from merchants worried about possible looting.
U.S. interests including Blockbuster video stores and
Citibank branches were covered with corrugated metal shields
ahead of protest marches planned early on Friday.
More than 7,500 police officers erected a security ring
around summit hotels and paroled the streets and beaches of
this normally bustling city of 600,000, which looked more like
a ghost town. Coast guard boats watched the shoreline and air
space was restricted. Most schools canceled classes.
MARADONA, PROTESTERS ALL ABOARD
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona joined other
celebrities late on Thursday aboard a Chavez-sponsored private
train headed from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata, where Maradona
will lead a protest march.
“It gives me pride to be on this train to repudiate the
human trash that is Bush,” Maradona told reporters before
approaching the dimly lit platform, where Boca Juniors soccer
club fans greeted him with pounding drums and stadium chants.
The train is also shuttling southward Sarajevo-born
director Emir Kusturica and Bolivian presidential front-runner,
indigenous leader Evo Morales. Chavez himself was to fly in.
“We are here to share in the fight that starts in the
communities and barrios,” said Morales, a fierce Bush critic.
U.S. anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and other relatives of
soldiers killed in Iraq are also expected in town.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the only leader not invited to the
summit, sent a delegation of Cuban athletes to the Peoples’
Summit to support his friend Chavez.
“We want to send a message to President Bush that the U.S.
way is not the only way,” said Veronica Gomez, a 34-year-old
Argentine secretary who plans to march.
Argentina’s “piqueteros” — the militant unemployed group
that sprang to fame during the country’s 2001-2002 economic
crisis — are organizing their own march for Friday.
The tension in Mar del Plata, spread to the capital Buenos
Aires, 250 miles to the north, where two separate riots broke
out this week. The government blamed a mix of labor and leftist
groups for the destructive rampages.
In Argentina, the summit of 34 leaders will concentrate on
job creation as the key to long-term prosperity in Latin
America, where the $3,000 per capita income is less than 10
percent of the U.S. average.
Washington’s goal is to convince Latin Americans to
“unlock” or further open their economies to boost investment,
trade and jobs, said Tom Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary for
the Western Hemisphere at the State Department.
A more prickly issue, the U.S. push to restart stalled
talks for the Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA in 2006,
may not make much progress in the forum due to resistance among
Latin America’s big economies, fearful of the impact on their
(Additional reporting by Hilary Burke in Buenos Aires,
Steve Holland on Air Force One, Raymond Colitt in Brasilia, and
Patricia Avila in Mar del Plata)