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.
“It was a turning point in Latin American history,” claims Marcelo Langieri, academic secretary of the Sociology faculty at the University of Buenos Aires. Langieri, who was one of 160 cultural and political leaders invited to travel the 400 kilometers from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata on a train dubbed the ALBA Express, emphasized what he considers a paradigm shift in the dialogue. “Not only was the FTAA questioned, but also the neoconservative economic model and capitalism,” and by somebody in a position of power such as Chávez’s.
Chávez revealed that he would be presenting an Alliance Against Hunger plan to the Summit leaders. He promised $1 million from Venezuela for the project, which proposes eradicating starvation within the next decade.
Signs carried by the crowd included “Stop Bush” and “Pirate Bush, out of Mar del Plata.” Crowd estimates varied, from 25,000 cited in the New York Times to 50,000 people cited by organizers.
The march and rally at the soccer stadium had an important celebrity factor attracting further attention to the cause. The ALBA Express, which included a special VIP car for Maradona, was cheered on by fans along the way to Mar del Plata, and stopped several times in the night to greet people gathered at stations.
Soccer legend Maradona attracted considerable attention to the march by announcing on his Monday night television show that he would be protesting Bush’s arrival in Argentina. Maradona, who is not known for his political views, has a close relationship with Cuban president Fidel Castro, built during recent years when he spent time recovering from drug addiction in Cuba. In a press conference on Thursday Maradona referred to Bush as “human garbage.” However, he did not actually march, going directly from the train to the stadium.
“Argentina is worthy; Let’s kick Bush out,” was Maradona’s message to the stadium protesters.
Langieri discards the idea of separating Maradona’s star power from the anti-Bush cause. For Langieri the importance of the message is expressed by the fact that a national hero such as Maradona would promote it. “Maradona is not a politician. What Diego said is the truth.”
Though the march to the stadium and the gathering there were peaceful, a separate demonstration by far-left groups ended in chaos and violence. Reaching the barrier area, a group that spread out over an avenue for over six blocks faced off against police forces. A segment of this group–about 200 people–were prepared for confrontation, masking themselves to avoid recognition and as protection from tear gas. Most of the demonstrators fled when police forces responded to rock-throwing with tear gas, but others turned on storefronts–setting a bank on fire and breaking windows.
The Summit of the Americas ended Saturday in a deadlock: Mexico, the United States and 29 other nations pushed to set an April deadline for more talks on free trade, but that was opposed by Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, the Associated Press reported. And in the end It is not clear what effect the opposition to Bush will have on regional cooperation. Will the promise of unity demonstrated by the Summit of the People and the peaceful marches lead to real alternatives to US foreign policy? Or is Bush merely the latest rallying point for anti-capitalism leading to riots and vandalism? Regardless, it seems to be that opposition toward Bush and his policies has created a powerful space, one which regional leaders, especially Chávez, are more than willing to take advantage of.