November 2, 2005

Chavez, Maradona, protests await Bush summit visit

By Mary Milliken

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) - The sparring U.S. and
Venezuelan presidents, George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez, are sure
to steal the show in this week's summit of 34 leaders from the
Americas with a fight to steer the region's course.

The November 4-5 meeting in this Argentine beach resort is
a rare chance to see the foes in the same forum, as Washington
struggles with an increasing number of Latin Americans angry
over the Iraq war and years of U.S.-encouraged market reforms.

"The main issue to watch is who is likely to emerge
stronger and prevail in terms of overall influence and
leadership in the region, be it Chavez or be it Bush," said
Patrick Esteruelas, analyst at the New York-based political
consultants Eurasia Group.

Protesters have organized an anti-summit outside the
security ring around Mar del Plata's top hotels. Bush will be
the focus of their ire, and Chavez is set to speak on Friday in
an event including Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona and
families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

Bush, facing low domestic approval ratings, has fewer
allies in a region that largely opposes the Iraq war and
perceives a lack of interest from Washington in its "backyard."

The left-leaning and populist Chavez has extended his
influence, using oil revenues to aid neighbors in need, like
Ecuador, Argentina and Uruguay. He has supplied cheap oil,
bought debt and invested in regional companies and television.

U.S. officials have increasingly portrayed Chavez as an
authoritarian bully cracking down on foes at home and using his
petroleum clout to influence regional politics.

Chavez, meanwhile, has accused Washington of working to
undermine his democratically elected government.

The region's growing ranks of left-leaning leaders, like
Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Argentina's Nestor
Kirchner, may not always agree with Chavez's anti-U.S. antics
and heavy state intervention in the economy.

But, like him, they want Latin America to look at alternate
roads to development after following Washington's free-market
economic model in the 1990s, which many blame for more poverty
and unsustainable debts.

Annual per capita income in Latin America is just over
$3,000, compared to $40,000 in the United States and $32,000 in


In summit host Argentina, whose economy collapsed in 2001
under $100 billion in debt, a recent poll showed six out of 10
Argentines oppose Bush.

"Public opinion will be focused on the protests against
Bush," said Chilean political analyst Ricardo Israel.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, a staunch Chavez ally, was
not invited by the summit organizer, the Organization of
American States.

Israel calls the summit "a forum where two topics are
always discussed in a deaf dialogue" -- the United States
pushes security issues and Latin America talks about

Washington is also pushing hard for the summit declaration
to include a commitment to restart the moribund talks for the
Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, in 2006.

Many countries, led by Brazil and Venezuela, believe the
FTAA terms dictated by the United States are harmful to Latin
America's agro-heavy economies and stopped the deal from going
into effect earlier this year.

"The FTAA is dead, it should be buried, it will be buried
by the people of this continent and another model of
integration will emerge," Chavez said last weekend on his
weekly television program "Alo Presidente."

Chavez said "the debate will be very good there (in Mar del
Plata), especially in the streets."

Bush also said that there were problems with the FTAA.

"The FTAA has stalled, I agree," Bush told reporters on

(Additional reporting by Matthew Robinson in Caracas, Pav
Jordan in Santiago, Anthony Boadle in Havana, Guido Nejamkis in
Brasilia, Cesar Illiano and Kevin Gray in Buenos Aires)