MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina -- A hemispheric summit to promote job creation and the spread of democracy throughout the Americas opened here yesterday with raucous anti-U.S. demonstrations and deep divisions among participating nations about the Bush administration's free trade agenda.
About 200 hard-core protesters attempting to breach the security cordon around the meeting site clashed with riot police about six blocks from the hotel where President Bush and other heads of state were meeting.
The protesters, some covering their faces to conceal their identities, set fire to a bank, apparently using a Molotov cocktail, hurled rocks and broke windows of more than a dozen shops, authorities said.
Although no serious injuries were reported, police were forced to use tear gas to disperse the crowd, and more than 50 demonstrators were arrested. The protesters were unable to enter the cordoned-off security zone, which includes much of the downtown beachfront area of this seaside resort.
Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of protesters marched peacefully if boisterously through the streets of this city, calling for Bush to be expelled from Argentina. They later cheered Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez when he labeled Washington's free-trade proposal dead and buried during a lengthy address at the site of a just-concluded alternate "people's summit."
"Mar del Plata is the tomb of ALCA," said Chavez, using the Spanish acronym for the Free Trade Area of the Americas plan backed by the White House.
"We brought our shovels to bury it," declared the fiery populist, who has emerged as the Bush administration's leading antagonist in South America
"Well, I will, of course, be polite," said Bush, striking a conciliatory note, when asked how he would react if confronted by Chavez. "That's what the American people expect their president to do - is to be a polite person. And I will - if I run across him, I will do just that."
The White House and its leading free trade allies here - Mexico and Chile - are pushing for a resuscitation of the hemispheric open-markets plan, which would create a unified trade bloc from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina and Chile. The proposal has been on the table for more than a decade, but host Argentina and several other South American nations have opposed it because of concerns about market access, subsidies provided to U.S. farmers and other issues.
The free trade dispute has emerged as both a substantive and a symbolic flash point here, underscoring deep philosophical differences between Washington and left-leaning elected governments in South America.
While the White House views open markets as a tool to broaden economic progress, many in Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere fear that market liberalization could lead to the plundering of their natural resources and depletion of national assets by multinational corporations. That, they argue, would result in increased economic woes in a region where poverty is endemic.
Many also criticize U.S. insistence on maintaining its agricultural subsidies while demanding that other countries, which by and large do not subsidize their farmers, open up their markets.
The philosophical differences about the role of government in the economy remain sharp, especially in Argentina, where many blame a financial meltdown of 2001-2002 on rapid liberalization in the preceding years. The economy here has been improving steadily since, but many once solidly middle-class families remain at or below the poverty line. About one-third of the population here lives in poverty.
"It is the state that should act to redress social inequalities," Argentine President Nestor Kirchner declared in his opening statement at the Hotel Hermitage, where the summit is being held.
It remains unclear whether the Bush administration will be successful in including any consensus language preserving the hemisphere-wide free trade concept in the summit's final declaration, expected today.
Government leaders and their aides have bemoaned the sharp differences evident at what is ostensibly designed to be a feel-good forum where smiling participants project an image of unity.
"This summit is very politicized," said a disenchanted Mexican President Vicente Fox, a Bush ally who backs the expanded free trade plan. The Brazilian foreign affairs secretary, Celso Amorim, told journalists that the forum could neither "bury ... or revive" the free trade plan.
"The debate has become too ideological," Amorim said.
Some participants mentioned the possibility of an extended free trade regimen without Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and other opponents, an outcome that would highlight hemispheric economic fissures. Washington already has free trade pacts with Mexico, Canada, Chile and Central America. It is negotiating others.
Most of yesterday's protests, which involved more than 30,000 marchers, according to unofficial estimates here, were peaceful but intensely anti-Bush. He was lampooned in banners hoisted aloft as a vampire, devil and war-monger, among other depictions. U.S. presidents are seldom well-liked in Latin America, but experts say Bush - whose Middle East and economic policies are extremely controversial here - is among the least popular in recent memory.
It was unlikely that Bush saw any of the large-scale protests, which unfolded about two miles from the upscale seaside strip where meetings are taking place and he and other presidents are lodging. However, the smaller clashes with riot police occurred much closer to the summit zone.
Marchers at the larger protests, many of whom arrived in more than 1,000 buses from Buenos Aires, included demonstrators ranging from women in indigenous dress to middle-class professionals. The image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine militant who joined in the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro and was later killed in Bolivia, was ubiquitous.
"We are making a statement against ... hunger and poverty," said Jordan Carriles, 28, one of several hundred Cubans who attended the alternate summit and protest march, which was held in a steady rain.
Patrick J. McDonnell and Edwin Chen write for Los Angeles Times.
Violence: Anti-U.S. demonstrators clash with police, shatter storefronts and set fire to businesses.
Opposition: Venezuela's president joins tens of thousands of peaceful protesters, vowing to bury a plan for a free trade zone. Mexico's president says the proposal will move forward.
Distractions: Bush is asked four times about the CIA leak investigation at home.