November 4, 2005

Anti-Bush protests grow in Argentina

By Mary Milliken and Kevin Gray

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of
marchers protested on Friday against U.S. President George W.
Bush and his free-trade push, as leaders from the Americas
gathered in an Argentine resort for a contentious debate on
improving Latin America's economy.

A mixed bag of protesters -- from Bolivian Indian women in
traditional bowler hats to mothers of Argentine "dirty-war"
victims -- filled 15 city blocks carrying signs with "Fuera
Bush" (Get out Bush) and flags with the face of Argentine
revolutionary Che Guevara.

About 7,500 police kept a heavy guard at the meeting site
and in the city center, but paid little attention to the
protesters, who were 4 miles away.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the leftist leader who
opposes Bush's economic model, prepared to take the protesters'
message inside the summit meeting room. He vowed to bury the
stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA.

"Every one of us has brought a shovel, an undertaker's
shovel, because here in Mar del Plata is the tomb of FTAA,"
Chavez told a full stadium hosting an alternative Peoples'
Summit before the afternoon start of the two-day meeting of

By his side was Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who
carried the flag of communist Cuba and wore a T-shirt saying
"War Criminal." They were joined by Bolivian indigenous leader
Evo Morales, front-runner for the December 18 presidential

A large Cuban delegation of athletes sent by President
Fidel Castro, who was not invited to the summit, was also
popular with the crowd, estimated at 25,000.

Marchers urged the region's leaders to pursue alternatives
to the U.S.-backed free-market recipes, which dominated in the
region in the 1990s but failed to reduce poverty and

"We are here to show our proposals and alternatives to
build a new dawn in Latin America," said Argentine Nobel Peace
Prize winner and author Adolfo Perez Esquivel.

As Chavez rallied the protesters, Bush told reporters he
would be polite if he saw Chavez, but offered implied criticism
of Venezuela's democracy. Bush said he judged leaders "based
upon their willingness to protect institutions for a viable
democratic society."

Bush also met with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and
praised the country's comeback from a 2001-2002 economic
collapse. Many Argentines blame the collapse on policies backed
by the United States and the International Monetary Fund.


While protests were peaceful and far from the summit site,
more radical groups were expected to challenge the several
rings of police security in downtown Mar del Plata. Coast-guard
boats and helicopters patrolled the shore.

Schools and most businesses were closed. Shop windows were
boarded up against possible violence and looting, while U.S.
interests such as Citibank branches and Blockbuster video
stores were armored with corrugated metal.

Outside of the Middle East, South America may be one of the
most hostile places to U.S. policies, despite Bush vows upon
taking office that it was a top-foreign policy priority. Many
in the region feel Washington meddled too much in the past in
economics and politics, then ignored the region to focus on the
war on terrorism.

While the emerging markets of Asia roared ahead in the last
20 years, Latin America's economies, rich with minerals, gas
and farmland, fell into a cycle of boom and bust.

Nowhere is that more evident than in summit host country
Argentina, a model of free-market policies in the 1990s that
fell from grace with $100 billion in unpayable foreign debt and
slid quickly into poverty for millions.

"Free trade means big U.S. and European corporations
gobbling up our companies and national interests," said Pedro
Moreira, a 69-year-old unemployed Argentine who carried a sign
reading "Get out Bush. Another world is possible."

Washington hopes to win a commitment to revive talks for
the FTAA in 2006, after opposition from Latin America's big
economies over U.S. agriculture subsidies stopped blocked it
this year.

Chavez's opposition is not enough to block a deal, but he
may pose a threat to reaching a consensus statement on the
trade agreement at the summit.

Bush arrives at the meeting with his popularity at home was
sinking further. For the first time in his presidency, a
majority of Americans questioned his integrity as his approval
ratings on key issues fell to new lows, in an ABC
News/Washington Post poll.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Tabassum Zakaria
in Mar del Plata and Patrick Markey in Caracas)