U.S. President George W. Bush leaves rocky summit with not much lost, little gained

U.S. President George W. Bush left the Summit of the Americas Saturday with no more than he expected: a cold shoulder from some Latin American leaders, no consensus on a free trading bloc for the hemisphere and biting criticism from anti-U.S. protesters and Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez.

It amounted to a nothing-lost-and-little-gained two days for the president. He may have made progress on setting up a Free Trade Area if the Americas that would stretch from Alaska to Argentina. After hours of talks, 29 of the 34 summit nations expressed a desire to keep negotiations alive.

Bush avoided a potentially embarrassing confrontation with Chavez, whose speeches were a rallying call for thousands of protesters opposed to the trade area and Bush policies. After those demonstrations Friday, a smaller number of hundreds of protesters broke storefronts and set fire to businesses in this seaside resort city. Saturday was calm. The Bush administration didn't travel to the summit with high hopes.

The White House viewed the stop as important, if only to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the Americas in the face of the widespread impression that his administration's interest in the region has been on the back burner since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The president also had sought to revive negotiations for a vast proposed Western Hemisphere free trade area. Bush argues that such a pact is the best way to help raise the standard of living for Latin Americans, including the estimated 220 million who live in poverty.

By late afternoon Saturday, the closing day of the summit, Bush departed the summit for Brazil on schedule as negotiators extended their sessions and continued talking. Mexico, the United States and 27 other nations support setting an April deadline for new talks on creating the vast new trade zone, but five key countries _ Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela _ are opposed and may not commit to more talks at all.

That was about as much as Bush could hope for. Even before he left Washington, he acknowledged the FTAA was "stalled." There was talk here of moving forward on a free-trade zone that would exclude the five nations.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said talks to lift trade barriers from Canada to Chile must wait until after the World Trade Organization hosts key negotiations in Hong Kong next month.

"There's no consensus on how to move forward," said Michael Shifter, a Latin American expert at the Inter-American Dialogue research group in Washington. Chavez, who came to the summit vowing to "bury FTAA," says the trading bloc will enslave Latin American workers.

Bush kept a low profile at the meeting. He did not speak at all publicly on Saturday. On Friday, he listened with his lips pursed to Chavez's rant against the United States. He avoided an encounter with Chavez, his biggest foe in the region, at the leaders' group photo.

Bush's chilly, yet civil, reception contrasted to the way he talked about Latin America when he first came into office. Today, some Latin American leaders are seeking distance, preferring to carve images as independent players on the international stage.

That was reflected in remarks by Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, the host of the summit. Issuing stern words against the United States, he said U.S. meddling in Latin America would no longer be tolerated. Bush makes this Latin America tour in a weakened political position. His standing in the polls have dropped to their lowest levels of his presidency, weighted down by ongoing violence in Iraq, his failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers and the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, in connection with the CIA leak investigation.

The president meets Sunday with Silva in Brasilia, where he will work to strengthen the U.S. alliance with Latin America's largest nation and biggest economy. Bush also visits Panama before returning to Washington on Monday, AP reports.


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