Anti-Bush protests turn violent at Americas summit


MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina - Anti-US demonstrations at the Americas Summit turned violent as protesters set fire to a bank, looted stores, and battled riot police blocks away from a luxury hotel where US President George W Bush met with regional leaders.


The violence came hours after tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, shouting "Get out Bush!" in a peaceful protest against the US leader, who is unpopular among many Latin Americans for the Iraq war and his push for a regional free trade deal.


But in a later march, several hundred protesters shattered storefronts and fought pitched street battles with riot police, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.


Masked protesters set fire to an Argentine bank branch and an office for Argentine telecommunications company Telefonica, hurling Molotav cocktails before hauling off computers and office furniture.


Police on motorcycles played cat-and-mouse chases with demonstrators, some of them carrying sticks and slingshots.


The two-day meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders was expected to be a showdown over differing views of free trade between the American president and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.


Chavez, the leftist leader who opposes Bush's economic model, vowed to bury the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA during a speech to protesters earlier in the day.


"Every one of us has brought a shovel, an undertaker's shovel, because here in Mar del Plata is the tomb of FTAA," Chavez told a full stadium hosting an alternative Peoples' Summit organized by anti-free trade activists.


By his side was Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who carried the flag of communist Cuba and wore a T-shirt saying "War Criminal." They were joined by Bolivian indigenous leader Evo Morales, front-runner for the Dec. 18 presidential election.


A large Cuban delegation of athletes sent by President Fidel Castro, who was not invited to the summit, was also popular with the crowd, estimated at 25,000.


Marchers urged the region's leaders to pursue alternatives to the US-backed free-market recipes, which dominated in the region in the 1990s but failed to reduce poverty and inequality.


"We are here to show our proposals and alternatives to build a new dawn in Latin America," said Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner and author Adolfo Perez Esquivel.


As Chavez rallied peaceful protesters, Bush told reporters he would be polite if he saw Chavez, but offered implied criticism of Venezuela's democracy. Bush said he judged leaders "based upon their willingness to protect institutions for a viable democratic society."


Bush also met Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and praised the country's comeback from a 2001-2002 economic collapse. Many Argentines blame the collapse on policies backed by the United States and the International Monetary Fund.


Radical groups had been expected to challenge the several rings of police security in downtown Mar del Plata. Coast-guard boats and helicopters also patrolled the shore.


Schools and most businesses were closed. Shop windows were boarded up against possible violence and looting, while US interests such as Citibank branches and Blockbuster video stores were armoured with corrugated metal.


Outside of the Middle East, South America may be one of the most hostile places to US policies, despite Bush vows upon taking office that it was a top-foreign policy priority. Many in the region feel Washington meddled too much in the past in economics and politics, then ignored the region to focus on the war on terrorism.


While the emerging markets of Asia roared ahead in the last 20 years, Latin America's economies, rich with minerals, gas and farmland, fell into a cycle of boom and bust.


Nowhere is that more evident than in summit host country Argentina, a model of free-market policies in the 1990s that fell from grace with $100 billion in unpayable foreign debt and slid quickly into poverty for millions.


"Free trade means big US and European corporations gobbling up our companies and national interests," said Pedro Moreira, a 69-year-old unemployed Argentine who carried a sign reading "Get out Bush. Another world is possible."


Washington hopes to win a commitment to revive talks for the FTAA in 2006, after opposition from Latin America's big economies over US agriculture subsidies stopped blocked it this year.


Chavez's opposition is not enough to block a deal, but he may pose a threat to reaching a consensus statement on the trade agreement at the summit.


Bush arrives at the meeting with his popularity at home was sinking further. For the first time in his presidency, a majority of Americans questioned his integrity as his approval ratings on key issues fell to new lows, in an ABC News/Washington Post poll.


- REUTERS

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