A showdown over free trade loomed large as leaders from across the Americas flew Thursday to Argentina to find solutions to Latin America's chronic misery, with Washington insisting liberalized trade will ease the region's ills amid deep opposition south of the Rio Grande.
And thousands of protesters were arriving at this seaside resort, preparing to criticize U.S. President George W. Bush over his push to create unfettered free trade and a huge new trade zone stretching from Alaska to Argentina.
Bush was to arrive late Thursday in Mar del Plata for the fourth Summit of the Americas, a two-day gathering with 31 fellow leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean. Their main focus at the summit Friday and Saturday is how to create jobs for a region where unemployment and underemployment has been a prime concern for decades.
But Bush wants to re-ignite stalled talks to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would stretch from Alaska to Argentina and overtake the European Union as the world's largest trade zone.
Talks, however, have been stalled for years and government officials were wrestling over how to deal with the FTAA in meetings at the summit site. On Wednesday, they were still bickering over whether the final summit declaration would include key language on when high-level FTAA negotiations might begin again.
Argentine negotiator Victor Hugo Varsky said negotiators were "advancing very slowly" as they decide what priority the FTAA should have in the summit's final declaration.
"Some countries don't want any mention," he said. "Others want to progress toward a trade accord."
Demonstrators at the People's Summit, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and top Cuban government officials, charge Bush is bent on opening up Latin America for massive investments by big companies that will end up enslaving already poor workers.
"Latin America remains the region of most inequalities in the world," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told The Associated Press before flying to Argentina to participate in a "People's Summit" to counter the Americas Summit. "The FTAA is just more of the same neo-liberal policies."
But a top Bush administration official said the president has made solid proposals recently to address Latin American concerns over U.S. farm subsidies considered lavish by developing countries, and that free trade is the best way to lift people around the world out of poverty.
"The big opportunity to enhance prosperity in the region, of course, is the trade agenda," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters Wednesday in Washington. "Because, as you know, through free trade and private investment the leverage you get in terms of economic growth and enhancing prosperity really dwarfs the impact of specific aid programs."
Communist-run Cuba, an adversary of the United States for more than four decades, is the only country in the hemisphere that was not invited to the summit hosted by the regional Organization of American States.
But that didn't stop a delegation of 300 Cubans from showing up in Mar del Plata, where they were decked out in sweat suits the color of the Cuban flag, red and white, along with bright blue letters proclaiming "CUBA", during a protest at the People's Summit. "We're here to show our combative spirit against free trade and all the other falsities drummed up by Bush, the imperialist," said Julio Martinez, a 37-year-old director of a youth communism center in Havana, reports the AP. I.L.