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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Hemisphere Summit Marred by Violent Anti-Bush Protests - New York Times

Hemisphere Summit Marred by Violent Anti-Bush Protests - New York TimesNovember 5, 2005
Hemisphere Summit Marred by Violent Anti-Bush Protests
By LARRY ROHTER and ELISABETH BUMILLER

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina, Nov. 4 - President Bush's troubles trailed him to an international summit meeting here on Friday as anti-Bush protesters turned violent just blocks from the gathering site, and Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's fiery populist leader, rallied a soccer stadium filled with at least 25,000 people against the United States.

Mr. Chávez, who has tried to use the summit meeting to stage a showdown with Mr. Bush, pronounced dead a free trade accord backed by Mr. Bush, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Left-wing groups throughout Latin America have long opposed the agreement, and some governments want more generous terms from Washington, so Mr. Bush had come here with hopes of jump-starting the stalled negotiations.

With the two-day summit meeting scheduled to end Saturday, negotiators were still struggling to find language endorsing the concept of free trade that would satisfy both the United States, its chief booster, and skeptics such as Brazil and Argentina, who have complained of American agricultural subsidies.

"Every one of us has brought a shovel, because Mar del Plata is going to be the tomb of F.T.A.A.," Mr. Chávez said. "F.T.A.A. is dead, and we, the people of the Americas, are the ones who buried it."

Several hundred rioters, separate from the crowd at the stadium, smashed windows, looted stores, chanted anti-Bush slogans and threw rocks at the police. Others lobbed gasoline bombs into a bank, causing a fire that destroyed the interior of the ground floor.

Mr. Bush spent his day away from the cacophony in the streets, either in meetings with Latin American leaders at the Sheraton Mar del Plata, on a heavily guarded bluff overlooking the Atlantic, or behind the barricades at the summit sessions.

The two were together in a group session, but Mr. Bush has so far refused to engage Mr. Chávez, and has tried to press the official summit themes of creating jobs and promoting democracy.

The president told reporters that if he saw the Venezuelan leader at the summit, "I will, of course, be polite." Mr. Bush added, "That's what the American people expect their president to do, is to be a polite person."

Mr. Bush, who polls show is the most unpopular American president ever among Latin Americans, appeared to acknowledge the ruckus he was at the center of when he made a morning appearance with Argentina's president, Néstor Kirchner, the host of the gathering.

"It's not easy to host all these countries," Mr. Bush said, addressing Mr. Kirchner. "It's particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me."

Beyond the economic issues, Mr. Bush was also trying to put political and personal relations with Latin America back on a positive track. As a candidate, he promised a new era of closer, more respectful, foreign relations, but governments in the region have complained consistently that what they got instead was neglect and indifference, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that made terrorism the focus of American foreign policy.

The Bush administration sought Friday to play down the protests, although the one official who directly addressed them on Friday, Thomas A. Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, spoke before the demonstrations became violent.

"I would just note that the kinds of demonstrations that we're going to see here in Mar del Plata are not unusual around these kinds of larger international gatherings," Mr. Shannon told reporters, in response to questions about the peaceful rally in the soccer stadium.

Police officers in riot gear responded with tear gas, and the violence appeared to be under control by evening. Banners carried by the looters and the graffiti they left on building walls indicated that they were members of several radical labor unions and far-left political parties that in the past have clashed with Mr. Kirchner.

The violence broke out at almost exactly the same time that Mr. Kirchner was delivering his welcoming speech to the gathering of 34 Western Hemisphere leaders, the Summit of the Americas, in the Teatro Auditorium, part of this resort city's heavily barricaded beachfront casino complex.

As the violence flared, Mr. Bush and the other leaders remained inside at the gathering.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Chávez, Mr. Bush's chief antagonist in Latin America, addressed some 25,000 peaceful protesters for more than two hours in the city's main soccer stadium. Mr. Chávez also accused the Pentagon of having a secret plan to invade his oil-rich country, similar to charges, always denied by the United States, that Mr. Chávez has made in the past.

"If it occurs to American imperialism, in its desperation, to invade Venezuela, a 100-years' war will begin," he said. Calling for Latin American unity in the face of what he described as American hegemony, he also said that "either our nation will be free or a flag will wave over its ruins. But we will not be a North American colony."

Before Mr. Bush left on his trip, he brushed off a question about possible protests during an interview with reporters from Latin American publications.

"Look, I understand not everybody agrees with the decisions I've made, but that's not unique to Central or South America," Mr. Bush said. "Truth of the matter is, there's people who disagree with the decisions I've made all over the world. And I understand that. But that's what happens when you make decisions."

There were also protest marches in Buenos Aires, the capital, where a branch of BankBoston and some fast food outlets, including a McDonald's, were attacked in the afternoon. Earlier in the day, a major teachers union announced a one-day strike to protest Mr. Bush's presence in Argentina.

In Mar del Plata, a favorite vacation spot south of Buenos Aires for middle-class Argentines, the violent protesters first made their way to the steel barriers marking the security perimeter around the summit site. At first, witnesses said, they merely threw rocks and gasoline bombs at police officers at the checkpoint and chanted slogans attacking Mr. Bush.

The riot police appeared after the attack on the bank and began to fire tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, forcing the protesters, most wearing ski masks or kerchiefs to hide their identity, to pull back. But as they did so, they attacked more than 50 of other stores and businesses, shattering windows and piling furniture, papers and computers in the street, where they were set ablaze.

Nearly all of those directly involved in the attacks seemed to be young men, some of them armed with truncheons, pipes, and slingshots that fired metal screws and bolts, others simply throwing rocks, bricks or chunks of concrete. The police said that more than 60 arrests were made.

At Mr. Chávez's peaceful rally, the Venezuelan president nonetheless mocked and taunted Mr. Bush, mostly without referring to him by name and occasionally just calling him "Mister," in English. Latin American presidents should keep their distance from the American leader, Mr. Chávez said, "because one by one, Bush's puppets have fallen."

As Mr. Chávez spoke, he was interrupted by chants from the crowd mocking Mr. Bush. Every mention of Fidel Castro, in contrast, was cheered, as were frequent references by Mr. Chávez to his desire to unite all of Latin America in a new wave of socialism.

"Chávez's is a voice that represents the entire Latin American community and the values we uphold, from national sovereignty to economic independence," said Silvio Torres, a 29-year-old government worker. "Would that every country were fortunate enough to have a leader like him."

Mr. Chávez's rally at the soccer stadium was preceded by a long march in a cold rain through the near-empty streets of this resort, Fearing violence and clashes with the police, many store owners along the route had closed their businesses and boarded up their windows. But that demonstration, at least, was entirely peaceful.

The thousands of protesters carried banners calling Mr. Bush a "fascist," "child-killer" or "genocidal beast," some with the "s" in his named replaced by a dollar sign or a swastika.

One marcher, Rafael Abu-Adal, a 52-year-old teacher from Buenos Aires, carried an Iraqi flag. His objective, he said, was not only to express solidarity with the Iraqi people, but also to draw a parallel to Latin America's situation.

"They are victims of American imperial power, and we are potential victims," he said. "Bush has destroyed their country with bombs, and unless we stop him, he will destroy ours through F.T.A.A."

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