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Bush and his opponents arrive for Summit of the Americas

Members of the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo carry a banner which reads
Members of the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo carry a banner which reads "Bush, Out" in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on Thursday. Bush is attending a summit in Mar del Plata with other leaders from the Western Hemisphere. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina – Although 34 heads of state are expected to attend a hemispherewide summit in this seaside town starting today, the spotlight Thursday was on the arrival of two leaders who are bitterly at odds with each other.

President Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are the stars of this fourth Summit of the Americas, and their presence was felt on the streets of Mar del Plata even before they arrived.

The official theme of the event convened by the Organization of American States, which comprises every country in the Americas except Cuba, is how to fight poverty and foster democracy.

Yet outside the Hermitage Hotel and other heavily policed meeting spots, the issue among protesters who’d gathered to denounce Bush was whether the U.S. agenda of free trade was better for Latin America than the Chavez creed of nationalized industries and pumped-up social programs.

On the streets at least, Bush is losing the argument.

Pasted signs and graffiti reading “Get out, Bush!” in Spanish and “Stop Bush” in English covered the 600,000-person city. Many were removed before Bush’s scheduled arrival Thursday night.

The rhetoric was even nastier at an alternative Summit of the Peoples of the Americas at the city’s sports center, where just the mention of Bush’s name drew hisses. The event’s main program Thursday was an ode to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

“Bush is presenting the world with a project of war and death,” said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine human rights activist who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize. “Instead of sending soldiers, Cuba is sending educators and doctors around the world.”

The anti-Bush frenzy is scheduled to culminate today, when protesters will greet the arrival of Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, a constant Bush critic, and march through the city to the sports stadium, where Chavez is scheduled to speak shortly after noon.

The Venezuelan populist, whom the U.S. administration accuses of curtailing political and press freedoms in his oil-rich country, has pledged to confront any criticism of his leadership. He also was scheduled to arrive Thursday night.

Although the march route avoids the protected meeting zone, splinter groups are expected to approach the barricades and confront police. Organizers said they expected as many as 12,000 people to march.

Cuban activist Ernesto Fernandez said he and about 300 of his countrymen came to “send a message that we are opposed to the presence of Bush on this continent.”

“This is a response to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, it’s a response to the war in Iraq and it’s a response to the Bush agenda,” Fernandez said.

In meetings Thursday, diplomats tried to finish writing the event’s official declaration but butted heads over references to a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. The United States is pushing the proposed hemispherewide trade pact, while countries such as Argentina and Brazil have opposed it.