Even before he got to Mar de Plata, known as the “happy city” by Argentines, US President George Bush knew his time was going to be anything but happy at the Summit of the Americas meeting. He arrived with more than 2000 US agents, and a plan to use one puppet president to avoid stirring another president. Instead, he was forced to leave with his tail between his legs.
Bush was beaten by an alliance of a couple of presidents, a presidential hopeful, a soccer star, a musician, a Nobel Prize winner and the tens of thousands of protesters who represented the dreams of millions across Latin America. According to the Argentine daily Pagina 12, all Bush could say to the president of the host country, Nestor Kirchner, as he left was “I am a bit surprised. Here something happened that I hadn’t envisaged”, referring to his failure to impose a new round of talks on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA — known by its Spanish acronym ALCA) during the November 4-6 summit.
A whole week of activities were organised to coincide with the presence of Bush in South America, beginning with the People’s Summit on November 1. Much of the media attention focused on the “ALBA express” train (ALBA is the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), which arrived in Mar de Plata late on November 3. ALBA is Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s counter-project to the FTAA. It aims for Latin American integration in the social, political and economic spheres, based on solidarity and friendship of the peoples and governments. On board the train were soccer star Diego Maradona, Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales (provoking sharp criticism from the media and right-wing competitors alike), Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez and five other carriages full of artists, musicians, writers and political activists. They were met at the station by Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentine Nobel Prize winner and one of the key figures behind the 12,000-strong counter summit.
All these figures were present on stage for the 40,000-strong rally on November 5, where the people’s spokesperson Chavez announced: “ALCA has been defeated by the peoples of this continent, and today, in Mar de Plata, it is time to bury ALCA. The next thing we will bury is capitalism.”
In a poll carried out by Public Opinion, Markets and Services (OPSM), 75% of Argentines showed sympathy for Chavez. The poll also recorded that six out of 10 Argentines were against or strongly against the presence of Bush in Argentina, something Maradona reflected when he said at the rally, while embracing Chavez, “Argentina has its dignity! Let’s throw Bush out of here!”
As the crowd chanted “ALCA go to hell”, Chavez proclaimed, “The battle against ALCA, which as Hebe Bonafini [leader of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo] said, we have undoubtably won it. But, be careful, this is only one battle, it is only one battle of many battles pending, which are there for the rest of our lives.
“Now, I say we have a double task: bury ALCA and the imperialist, capitalist economic model on one hand, but on the other hand it is up to us, comrades, to be the initiators of a new time, the initiators of a new history ... the initiators of ALBA ... for the peoples of the Americas, a real liberating integration, for liberty, for equality, for justice and for peace.
“Only ourselves, united, can do it, and as well, bury capitalism in order to give birth to the socialism of the 21st century, a new historic socialist project.”
As the only president to speak at the counter-summit events (Cuban president Fidel Castro sent greetings but did not attend the summit, as Cuba is the only country of the Americas excluded from the summit), Chavez spread this message inside and outside the official meeting.
The tone for a fiery debate against the FTAA was set by Kirchner in his opening speech to the summit. According to Pagina 12, Kirchner rallied against “international financial institutions, the Washington Consensus, the idea of the free market as a panacea, agricultural subsidies and the FTAA”.
“Simply signing an agreement will not lead to an easy and direct road to prosperity”, he said, adding that the US, with its “role as first global power”, needed to consider its policies towards the region as they “not only provoke misery and poverty, but also add to institutional instability”.
Kirchner finished by saying “our poor, our excluded, our countries, no longer accept that we have to keep talking in a low voice”. Venezuelan TV reported that Chavez applauded Kirchner, saying, “It was a valiant speech. He is inviting us to say things openly.” Chavez and Kirchner, along with Uruguayan president Tabare Vasquez and Brazilian president Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, formed the counter-bloc to the US’s attempts to push forward talks on the FTAA in its current form. Chavez was the only one to reject outright any talk of an FTAA. This was exactly what Bush didn’t want, as a November 5 Reuters dispatch revealed. “[Bush] carefully avoided taking on [Chavez] directly at the 34-nation Summit of the Americas, in what aides said was an effort not to build up the fiery leader.
“The U.S. strategy was to avoid a loud public battle with Chavez in Mar del Plata that might build up the Venezuelan and his anti-American argument ... While Chavez worked the anti-Bush crowd with a two-hour speech to a stadium filled with 25,000 protesters on Friday, Bush held closed-door meetings with other leaders. When the summit opened, the two leaders were placed in separate rows out of speaking distance.”
Instead, Bush left it to Mexican president Vincente Fox to move motions around restarting discussion on the FTAA. In the end, the best the US could achieve in the fiercely debated final resolution was the statement “some members maintain ... our commitment to achieving a comprehensive and balanced agreement directed at the expansion of commercial flows and, at a global level, trade free of subsidies and of practices that distort it”.
Some in the US media tried to paint this as a victory for the US, claiming the fact that a debate had opened up on the issue was a step forward, however it seems the main debate was that spoken of by Chavez — developing a new integrated South America on the grave of the FTAA.
From Green Left Weekly, November 16, 2005.