MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina – Waving communist flags and images of famed revolutionary Che Guevara (search), thousands of people opposed to President Bush and free trade protested Tuesday at a "People's Summit" ahead of this weekend's fourth Summit of the Americas (search).
Arriving in buses and minivans at the seaside resort of Mar del Plata (search), the demonstrators gathered at a drab concrete sports complex several miles from the luxury hotel where leaders of 34 Western Hemisphere nations will meet Friday and Saturday.
"This is a chance for the real people to hold their own summit," said Wayra Aru Blanco, a 33-year-old Bolivian Indian, beating a calfskin drum as brightly dressed South American Indian women played reed flutes.
Protesters will spend days airing grievances from the Iraq war to free trade policies they say enslave Latin America workers. They are hoping to draw 50,000 people for their highlight event — a protest Friday a day after Bush arrives.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search), a leftist whose government has used the country's vast oil wealth on social programs for the poor, was invited to attend the march. Chavez, an outspoken critic of free trade, has strained relations with Washington and regularly claims the United States is trying to overthrow his government, an accusation U.S. officials have dismissed.
Violent protests broke out in the capital of Buenos Aires over poor commuter train service, and authorities blamed the unrest on leftists and labor activists, though there was no immediate indication that it was related to the impending anti-Bush demonstrations.
Mobs set fire to a dilapidated train in a working-class suburb, stoned and overturned police cruisers and battled with riot police who fired rubber bullets into the crowds.
Twenty-one people were injured, and police took 113 people into custody.
In Mar del Plata, Blanco, an electrician who left Bolivia for Argentina eight years ago because there were no job prospects at home, said he blames American-style capitalism for chronic poverty and joblessness throughout Latin America.
"The problem isn't Bush really, it's the capitalist system behind him," he said. "The system was a problem even with Bush's father in power."
Job creation will be high on the agenda of the summit of the Organization of American States (search).
"It's our hope that coming out of the summit, the leaders will have some concrete steps that all the countries of the region can be taking," said Thomas Shannon, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
He said Bush would be armed with several job-generating ideas.
"With jobs you can attack social exclusion," Shannon said.
Some 220 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean live in poverty, according to some estimates.
But Latin Americans have plenty of other gripes with their powerful neighbor to the north. Just 30 miles from Mar de Plata, signs proclaimed "Agricultural Subsidies
long-standing Latin American complaints that lavish U.S. subsidies for its farmers are holding back the region's booming agribusiness.
In Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires, more protesters prepared to make the five-hour drive to Mar del Plata, along a highway bordered by prairie where cattle graze next to water-filled ditches with flocks of flamingos.
Also scheduled to participate in Friday's demonstration is the Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who will ride a train taking other Bush opponents to Mar del Plata.
Maradona hosts a popular television program and Monday night aired a taped television interview of his recent interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro (search).
Castro predicted that U.S. efforts to lower trade barriers across the Americas — an ambitious proposal called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (search) — would ultimately fail.
Castro is the only Latin American leader who will not attend. He is not permitted to participate because communist Cuba is not a member of the Washington-based OAS, which organizes the summit.
Heavy security precautions were being taken at the summer resort 230 miles south of Buenos Aires, with some 10,000 police and security forces already deployed in Mar del Plata.
Argentine officials said they will have enough police on hand to counter any violent protests like those at past summits.
Free trade efforts have lost steam since the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 gave a big push for establishing FTAA by early this century across the Western Hemisphere.