- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — President Bush yesterday pushed for free trade among the Americas stretching from Alaska to Argentina as thousands protested his visit and the president of Venezuela vowed to “bury” the trade pact.

Just as the opening ceremonies for the Summit of the Americas got under way, more than 1,000 anti-American demonstrators, most wearing bandanas across their faces, clashed with police by throwing Molotov cocktails and stones at officers clad in riot gear.

Police, backed by hundreds of soldiers armed with machine guns, shot tear-gas canisters into the crowd, at one point firing more than 50 rounds in succession. More than 60 people were detained, police said. It was not clear whether there were injuries. The clash did not interrupt the ceremonies just three blocks away, where Mr. Bush was cheered by Argentines when he arrived.

Despite the violence, the president forged ahead with U.S. efforts to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) accord, which has been stalled by fierce opposition from Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. The leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay also have expressed concerns about the pact.

Leaders of 34 Latin American nations yesterday failed to agree on language aimed at restarting talks as soon as April to create the FTAA, a proposal originally raised in 1994 at the first Americas summit in Miami. The trade zone would rival the European Union as the world’s largest, but its creation has been stalled for years amid bickering over issues such as U.S. farm subsidies.

“We continue to work with others on a free trade area of the Americas,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “While that is being worked out, we are moving forward on bilateral and regional agreements.”

The summit, focused this year on alleviating poverty and establishing sound economies, did not directly address the FTAA. Mr. Bush also chose not to openly press opponents on the issue, instead urging leaders to heed the fundamentals of democracy.

“Free societies are important to the progress of men and women; but free societies also require institutions that are solid and sound, institutions such as the right to worship freely, the right to say what you want in the press freely, the right to campaign and express your opinions freely,” he said.

“I will remind people today at this important summit that — as we talk about poverty and minority rights, which is of concern to many countries here, that … such concerns are our concerns, and that if you’re interested in minority rights, the best way to allow minorities to have rights is in a democratic society, where the people actually make the decisions for government,” Mr. Bush said.

The president, who pushed a free trade agreement through Congress this year for Central America and the Dominican Republic — known as CAFTA — also delivered the message that free trade is key to alleviating poverty and unemployment throughout the Americas. He said a free trade agreement with the Andean nations Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, which are also stalled, would be a good start.

“All those countries recognize the importance of having a free trade agreement with the United States, and I assured them that our negotiators are negotiating in good faith, and will continue to negotiate in good faith,” the president said after discussions the nations’ leaders.

Although the FTAA talks are stalled, Mr. Bush got some support from Mexican President Vicente Fox, who said yesterday that a majority of nations in the Western Hemisphere will consider moving forward with negotiations without the participation of dissenting countries.

Mr. Fox said 29 of the 34 countries participating in this year’s summit support such a pact.

Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon said moving ahead without dissenting countries is an option.

“Although we call it Free Trade Area of the Americas, and our goal is to have an economically integrated hemisphere stretching from Canada to the tip of Chile and Argentina, obviously, to the degree to which there is any country in the region that decides it cannot join FTAA, that’s going to be their sovereign decision, and there’s really not much we or anybody else can do about it,” he said.

The most vocal opponent to the FTAA is Mr. Chavez, who addressed a crowd of protesters in a stadium yesterday before the summit got under way.

“Only united can we defeat imperialism and bring our people a better life,” he said, adding: “Here, in Mar del Plata, FTAA will be buried.”

The leftist Chavez has said free trade is being forced on Latin American countries, and instead has pushed for an anti-FTAA deal based on socialist ideals. But he acknowledged to the crowd that the proposal likely will move forward anyway and warned opponents in the 34-nation summit that free trade had the support of the vast majority.

When asked how he would react to meeting Mr. Chavez at the summit, Mr. Bush said he would be polite.

“That’s what the American people expect their president to do, is to be a polite person,” he said. “And if I run across him, I will do just that.”

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