MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina – President Bush (search) on Friday worked to smooth the United States' troubled image in Latin America, commending Argentina's efforts to improve its damaged economy.
"The economy has changed in quite dramatic fashions thanks to the wise decisions you have made," Bush told Argentina President Nestor Kirchner (search).
While not directly offering U.S. help as Argentina seeks to reach a new financial settlement with the International Monetary Fund, Bush expressed his support.
"His record is such now that he can take his case to the IMF with a much stronger hand," Bush said.
Bush spoke on the first day of the Summit of the Americas (search) being attended by leaders and officials of 34 nations. Nearby, an estimated 10,000 demonstrators shouting "Get out Bush!" marched in the streets of this seaside resort, illustrating the skepticism that many South Americans have toward U.S.-led negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas stretching from Alaska to Argentina.
Bush and an outspoken critic, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search), also were likely to run into each other Friday, shortly after Chavez's speech to a demonstration of mostly anti-Bush protesters.
"I will, of course, be polite," Bush told reporters. "That's what the American people expect their president to do."
Chavez has joked about whether Bush is afraid of him and said he might sneak up and scare Bush at the summit. Chavez has said he would use the meeting as a stage to denounce the U.S. as a "capitalist, imperialist model" of democracy that exploits the economies of developing nations.
Mexican President Vicente Fox (search) said Friday that a majority of nations in the Western Hemisphere will consider moving forward with negotiations to create a free trade zone without the participation of dissenting countries like Venezuela.
Speaking to reporters, Fox said 29 of the 34 countries participating in the event support such a move. Aside from Venezuela, the dissenting countries include Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, Fox said.
Bush has acknowledged that his free trade plan has stalled, but U.S. officials were making a renewed push. He was making the call for liberalized trade and increased entrepreneurship while visiting Argentina, the summit host that adopted such reforms in the 1990s and saw its economy collapse.
Supporters of free trade say those policies aren't to blame for the financial crisis and resulting bloody riots four years ago. Instead, they point to other mistakes, chief among them government corruption and Argentina's heavy borrowing.
Argentina's economy is recovering faster than many leading analysts expected, in part because of a boom in exports. But the country still suffers from double-digit unemployment and high poverty.
In his appearance alongside Kirchner, Bush didn't specifically mention the free trade agreement. He urged Latin American governments to commit to democratic governance.
"The United States has common ground with countries that promote democracy and freedom and believe in the rule of law," he said.
Relations between Bush and Kirchner, a populist leader elected in the political upheaval that followed Argentina's economic collapse, have been chilly. The Argentine was an opponent of the war in Iraq and said before their meeting at the last Summit of the Americas that he would "win by a knockout" in his private meeting with Bush.
Each leader referred repeatedly to how "candid" their discussions were, and the pair took no questions from reporters.
"I'm leaving this meeting feeling very satisfied because it wasn't a meeting looking for nice words but to speak the truth," Kirchner said. "Each us did just that."
But Bush clearly sought to stress common ground. He mentioned Manu Ginobili (search) of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, a star guard who has helped the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association win two titles in the past three years.
"He's made a vital contribution to a basketball team from the state in which I live," Bush said. "But he's also a good ambassador for your country."
Argentina remains the only country in Latin America that holds "major non-NATO ally" status with the United States, exempting it from certain sanctions. The country has cooperated with the United States on fighting drug trade and terrorism, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said.
Bush's trip comes as he faces the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency back home.
Demonstrators poured into Mar del Plata. Police with riot shields redoubled security, and navy ships patrolled offshore as helicopters clattered over the luxury hotel where leaders will meet.
"We're going to say 'No to Bush' and 'No to FTAA,'" said Argentine labor leader Juan Gonzalez. "We don't have any confidence in anything he might propose here. Whatever it is will only prolong hunger, poverty and death in Latin America."
Thomas Shannon, the new assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said aboard Air Force One on the flight to Argentina that the U.S. is still promoting the FTAA even though it has been "slowed down," but also is pursuing regional and bilateral agreements to move the president's free trade agenda.
Bush highlighted his success by gathering first thing Friday with leaders of Central American nations involved in a recently approved trade pact with the United States. Later in the day, Bush had a one-on-one meeting with the president of Chile, which negotiated a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S.