SAO PAULO, Brazil – The beginning of President Bush's five-nation Latin American tour sparked protests across the region, with thousands of demonstrators and police clashing in Brazil and students in Colombia lobbing explosives at authorities.
More than 6,000 students, environmentalists and left-leaning Brazilians held a largely peaceful march through the heart of Sao Paulo before police fired tear gas at protesters and beat them with batons. Hundreds fled and ducked into businesses to avoid the chaos, some of them bloodied.
Authorities did not disclose the number of injuries, but Brazilian media said at least 18 people were hurt and news photographs showed injured people being carried away.
Protesters said scuffles broke out when some radical demonstrators provoked officers and threw sticks and rocks at them — but said police overreacted. A police officer who declined to give his name in keeping with department policy confirmed that extremists appeared to cause the confrontations.
After the clash, the protest continued peacefully but with far fewer people. The marchers waved communist flags and railed against Bush, the war in Iraq and the ethanol proposal. Almost all had departed by sundown and streets were calm several hours later when Bush arrived in Sao Paulo.
In the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, more than 500 people yelled "Get Out, Imperialist!" as they marched to a Citigroup Inc. bank branch and burned an effigy of Bush. Protesters also targeted the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro, splattering it with bright red paint meant to signify blood.
In Colombia, about 200 masked students at Bogota's National University clashed with 300 anti-riot police carrying shields and helmets, spray-painting anti-U.S. slogans on walls and shouting "Out Bush!"
Police fired water cannons and tear gas, and the students hurled back rocks, fireworks, a few Molotov cocktails and dozens of "potato bombs" — small explosives made of gunpowder wrapped in foil. There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.
The Colombian demonstrators called for the scuttling of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement signed in November and currently stalled in U.S. Congress, and accused Washington of meddling in the South American nation's internal affairs by sending some $700 million a year in mostly military aid.
Colombia is beefing up security in the capital for Bush's visit Sunday, the first by a sitting U.S. president since Ronald Reagan in 1982. About 21,000 security agents will patrol the capital.
Meanwhile, Colombia's police chief said authorities have foiled leftist rebel plans for terrorist acts to disrupt Bush's visit, but offered no details.
Asked about the protests, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush "enjoys traveling to thriving democracies where freedom of speech and expression are the law of the land. He has a positive agenda here that we believe the people of Brazil and the rest of the Americas will benefit from."
Some protesters in Brazil carried stalks of sugarcane — which is used to make ethanol — and a banner reading: "For every liter of ethanol produced, 4 liters of fresh water are consumed, monoculture is destroying the nation's greatest asset."
"Bush and the United States go to war to control oil reserves, and now Bush and his pals are trying to control the production of ethanol in Brazil. And that has to be stopped," said Suzanne Pereira dos Santos of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement.
Activists from the environmental group Greenpeace warned that increased ethanol production could lead to further clearing of the Amazon rain forest as well as cause social unrest, since most sugarcane-ethanol operations are run by wealthy families or corporations that reap most of the benefits while the poor are left to cut the cane with machetes.
Bush has spoken approvingly of Brazil's ethanol program, which powers eight out of every 10 new cars. The proposed accord is meant to help turn ethanol into an internationally traded commodity and to promote sugarcane-based ethanol production in Central America and the Caribbean.
Brazil is mounting what has been described as its biggest security effort ever in Sao Paulo. About 4,000 agents — including Brazilian troops and FBI and U.S. Secret Service officers — will be on hand during Bush's almost 24-hour visit.
Graffiti reading "Get Out, Bush! Assassin!" appeared on walls near locations in Brazil where Bush will drive past on his tour, which also includes stops in Uruguay, Guatemala and Mexico.
However, there were no visible signs of protesters along Bush's motorcade route in the nearly hourlong drive from Sao Paulo's airport to his hotel.
In Mexico, which Bush is scheduled to visit Tuesday, about two dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in the capital chanting slogans against the U.S. project to construct border fences and Bush's visit.
Carmelo Ramirez Reyes showed up in a devil's mask, carrying a placard reading "My name is George Bush, killer of Mexicans."