Bush Rebuffed in South America

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina -- U.S. President George W. Bush left the country before the conclusion of a two-day summit here as key South American leaders rejected the White House's vision for a free-trade zone that would stretch from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America.

Fierce opposition from the populist presidents of the continent's three largest economies -- Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela -- thwarted the resuscitation of the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas.

"There are two points of view on the continent," said Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa, referring to the five dissenting nations, including Uruguay and Paraguay. The five nations account for more than half of the continent's economic activity.

Coming amid lackluster poll numbers for the president back home, some observers called the talks' collapse another disappointment for Bush.

Bush's principal South American antagonist, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, deemed the outcome an unequivocal victory for critics who say open markets can lead to further poverty by opening the door to plunder by powerful foreign interests.

"The great loser today was George W. Bush. The man went away wounded," a triumphant Chavez told reporters here, alluding to the president's quick departure.

The final summit document, completed six hours after deadline, included two distinct views: the opinion of Washington and the 28 other countries that backed the creation of the trade accord, and the five dissenters' view that the imposition of a hemispheric free-market zone would harm certain countries.

"The conditions do not exist to attain a hemispheric free-trade accord that is balanced and fair with access to markets [and] free of subsidies and distorted commercial practices," the dissenters wrote.

Complicating matters throughout the discussions was the summit's heavily politicized shadow struggle: That confrontation pitted Bush, mired in a second-term slump and extremely unpopular in Latin America, against his Venezuelan counterpart, who is a fiery populist and acolyte of Fidel Castro.

The Bush-Chavez conflict rendered matters especially uncomfortable for the free-trade proposal's other major opponents -- the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. None were especially eager to give a black eye to Bush, but neither were they keen to draw the rhetorical wrath of Chavez or throw in the towel on an issue many feel strongly about.

The independence of Chavez and other opponents of the accord illustrates how Latin America, now with many left-leaning governments, has changed since the Cold War era, when U.S.-backed strongmen generally went along with Washington's wishes.

And although Chavez and other critics may have crowed over the outcome, other observers said the U.S. president probably did more good than harm just by showing up at the summit -- despite weeks of rumors indicating that he would not come because of security and other concerns.

"Latin America needs to be reassured that the Bush administration cares," said David de Ferranti, a Latin America analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.