Some aspects of George Bush’s travels have become commonplace, including massive protests, sporadic violence and tight security operations. All of these usual elements–notably the imperial-style arrival of the US president with an entourage of 2,000 people and four AWACS surveillance systems–were present at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
But the opposition to Bush and his proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), as well as neoconservative economic policies and capitalism in general, took on a creative twist this time, with a massive march that ended in a rally at a sports stadium involving a heterogeneous group of Latin American leaders: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Bolivian socialist leader Evo Morales, Argentine leaders of the unemployed, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, singers from all over the continent, and, of course, Diego Maradona, legendary soccer hero.
A counter-meeting, the Summit of the People, began in the city on Monday, and concluded on Thursday with recommendations to summarily suspend FTAA talks, combat inequality in the region, and “energetically reject the militarization of the continent promoted by the empire of the north.”
At the culminating event of the march against Bush, Chávez called the stadium in which over 25,000 demonstrators had gathered the “gravesite of the FTAA.”
He also proposed a Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA, a Spanish acronym meaning “dawn”) to replace the controversial FTAA. Regional opponents of Bush’s free trade agreement accuse it of fomenting inequality and placing poorer countries at the mercy of wealthier ones. The Bolivarian alternative proposes regional integration with the goal of fighting poverty and social exclusion.
Chávez’s speech reflected the diplomatic problems encountered in the writing of the Summit of the Americas final text. Venezuela refused to agree to a note, inserted by US representatives, mentioning “the 96 million people who live in extreme poverty,” in Latin America and the Caribbean unless there was also mention of the “37 million poor” living in the United States.
ALBA, according to Chávez “must be built from the bottom…It will not be built up from the elites, but from below, from our roots.” He listed examples of ALBA in action, citing the sale of Venezuelan petroleum to fourteen Caribbean countries at a 40 percent discount and with an interest rate of one percent over twenty-five years, with the ability to pay off the debt with goods and services instead of cash.