Argentina: Negotiations on free trade drag on at Americas summit as Bush leaves for Brazil

Negotiations on whether to revitalize talks on a hemispheric free trade zone dragged on for hours past a deadline Saturday, and a top negotiator said the 34 nations participating in the Americas Summit were still deeply divided over the issue.

U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Argentina on Air Force One as the negotiations that were scheduled to end before lunch went into the late afternoon. Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, was left in charge of negotiations for the United States. Negotiators canceled lunch and delayed a summit closing ceremony, as well as a press conference to announce the summit's final declaration.

The top negotiator, who spoke to The Associated Press, said countries would be allowed to opt out of a controversial clause on whether to schedule talks next year on creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas. The official declined to give his name because the declaration had not yet been finalized. Mexico, the United States and 27 other nations wanted to set an April deadline for talks, but that was opposed by Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela.

The United States says the trade zone would open up new markets for Americans while bringing wealth and jobs to Latin America, but Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez came to the summit in this seaside resort vowing to "bury FTAA."

The last minute haggling at the summit of 34 Latin American and Caribbean nations came after Brazil _ a key regional player with Latin America's largest economy _ hedged at setting a firm date because it wants to focus for now on ongoing World Trade Organization talks aimed at cutting tariffs around the world and boosting the planet's economy.

Mar del Plata was calm Saturday after protesters opposed to the presence of U.S. President George W. Bush and the FTAA clashed in street battles with riot police, burning and ransacking businesses just 10 blocks from the theater where the leaders opened the summit.

Protests have become commonplace at summits, especially those dealing with free trade and U.S. policies. But Friday's violence was on a much smaller scale than massive clashes in 2001 during the Americas Summit in Canada, when police detained 400 people and scores were injured.

Chavez is easily the most vocal critic of the FTAA, declaring the deal dead at a peaceful rally Friday for more than 20,000 protesters.

Today Mexican President Vicente Fox expressed irritation with his Venezuelan counterpart, saying: "This is a personal position of the Venezuelan president." The Mexican president also denied allegations by Chavez that Washington is trying to strong-arm the region into a free trade agreement.

The summit declaration was also expected to address key issues for Latin America _ including job creation, immigration and disaster relief for an area that is often devastated by hurricanes and earthquakes.

But the battle over the future of the FTAA dominated the summit, with Chavez has saying an anti-FTAA should be formed just for Latin America and the Caribbean based on socialist ideals. Fox argued that the 29 countries that want to forge ahead should form the trade zone on their own _ even though that would leave out Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela and dash hopes of creating a bloc that would eclipse the European Union.

Though there were no immediate signs that protests would re-ignite on Saturday, security remained tight at the summit site, where a huge downtown section of Mar del Plata remained closed by metal barriers and police and soldiers toting semiautomatic weapons. Leftist activists also protested Friday in Uruguay, Venezuela and Brazil _ where Bush heads for a much-anticipated visit with Silva after the summit ends.

The violence was front-page news Saturday across Latin America, with dramatic photos of young masked rioters smashing the glass storefronts of at least 30 businesses in Mar del Plata, setting a bank ablaze and battling riot police with slingshots and sharpened sticks. Sixty four people were arrested, but police reported no deaths or major injuries. Bush leaves Argentina later Saturday and flies to Brasilia to stay the night and be Silva's guest at a barbecue Sunday before heading to Panama.

The American president's visit is aimed at strengthening relations with Silva, who was distrusted by Washington after becoming the first elected leftist leader of Latin America's largest country in 2003. But Silva _ a former shoeshine boy, grade-school dropout, lathe operator and radical union leader _ abandoned his leftist rhetoric and has stabilized Brazil's economy.

Protesters who participated all week in a peaceful "People's Summit" demonstration in a sports complex a mile from the oceanfront hotel where the leaders stayed were gone Saturday, after leaving Mar del Plata in caravans of buses and minivans.

As children skateboarded in a shady park, workers dismantled a tent that hosted a delegation from Cuba, whose communist regime was not allowed to participate in the Americas Summit. Argentine security guard Sebastian Lopez, 30, hoped the leaders would denounce the violent protests because they unfairly overshadowed both events, AP reports.


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