Bush Promotes Free Trade in Argentina

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President Bush will make his call for liberalized trade and increased entrepreneurship in Argentina, a country 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.

The thousands of protesters gathered in this seaside resort to protest Bush's visit represent the skepticism that many South Americans have toward U.S.-led negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (search) stretching from Alaska to Argentina.

Bush says open trade among nations in the Western Hemisphere and beyond would help alleviate poverty. He's pushing that agenda with the 34 nations gathered at the two-day Summit of the Americas.

Demonstrators poured into Mar del Plata (search) for Friday's opening day. 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."

Bush has acknowledged that the FTAA, which was once one of his highest trade priorities, has stalled.Thomas Shannon (search), 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 is highlighting 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 has one-on-one meetings with the president of Chile, which negotiated a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S., and the host of the summit, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner (search).

Bush and an outspoken critic, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, were likely to meet Friday, shortly after Chavez's speech to a demonstration of mostly anti-Bush protesters. 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.

Bush's trip comes as he faces the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency back home.

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.

Bush applauded Kirchner, the populist leader who was elected in the political upheaval that followed the economic collapse, for being a good steward of the people's money. But he said Kirchner shouldn't look to the United States to help Argentina reach a new financial settlement with the International Monetary Fund.

"Since he has proven himself to be capable of performing, it seems like to me that the best policy ought to be for the Argentine government to deal directly with the IMF, without the U.S. having to be a middleman," Bush said earlier this week.

Relations between Bush and Kirchner 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.

Still, 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.