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Bush in summit hot seat

Chavez may use sessions to confront the president

Hebe de Bonafini stands by a sign that reads "Get out Bush" during an anti-Bush rally in Mar del Plata Thursday.
Hebe de Bonafini stands by a sign that reads "Get out Bush" during an anti-Bush rally in Mar del Plata Thursday.
Jorge Saenz, Associated Press

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — President Bush arrived in this beach resort city on Thursday night for a gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders after one of the worst weeks of his presidency, only to be greeted by strong anti-American sentiment and taunts from Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez.

Chavez, who has repeatedly accused the Bush administration of trying to assassinate him and invade his oil-rich country, is using the international summit meeting here to protest the administration's free-trade message and to attempt a showdown with Bush, the man the Venezuelan government calls "Mr. Danger."

Air Force One landed shortly after 8 p.m. on a rainy spring evening, and Bush went immediately to his hotel, the Sheraton Mar del Plata, on a bluff overlooking the South Atlantic.

Bush and Chavez are expected to see each other in a group session at the opening today of the Summit of the Americas, a two-day, 34-nation gathering. The meeting is officially to focus on creating jobs and promoting democracy. But Chavez said this week that his main goal at the meeting was the "final burial" of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas accord, which already is stalled.

The White House strategy is to ignore Chavez as much as possible. "President Chavez has been pretty vocal about how he sees the summit and what he hopes to achieve at the summit," Thomas A. Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, told reporters on Air Force One on Thursday while it headed for Argentina. "I mean, he's going to behave the way he wants to behave."

Even so, on Tuesday Bush did not denounce a longstanding request from Chavez that the Argentine government build a nuclear reactor in Venezuela for energy production.

"I guess if I were a taxpayer in Venezuela, I would wonder about the energy supply that Venezuela has," Bush said in an interview at the White House on Tuesday with a group of reporters from Latin American publications. "But maybe it makes sense." Bush added that "it's the first I've heard of it."

A little more than 24 hours later, Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, appeared to backtrack somewhat when he noted that Chavez had asked a number of countries to build a nuclear reactor in Venezuela, and that he was far from a deal.

"I think that's because people recognize that it would be problematic for Chavez to be in the nuclear business, if you will," Hadley said, adding that "this trip, this summit, is not about Hugo Chavez."

But behind the scenes on Thursday, the United States and Venezuela were intensely jostling for advantage. As a result, negotiators were still struggling to come to an agreement over the final text of a joint communique, meant to be based on a consensus, that the leaders here hope to issue when the meeting ends on Saturday.

In a section on job creation, U.S. representatives have suggested taking note of "the 96 million people who live in extreme poverty" in Latin America and the Caribbean, subsisting on one dollar a day or less. But Venezuela would agree to that statement, Latin American diplomats said, only if the following phrase were also included: "while in the United States there are 37 million poor."

The deepest disagreements had to do with the issue of free trade, which Bush has offered as the key to economic growth in the hemisphere. Washington is said to be pushing to issue a statement favoring the resumption of negotiations aimed at establishing the free trade accord, abbreviated FTAA, but has met resistance not only from Venezuela but from Brazil and Argentina, too.

At a parallel "People's Summit" in Mar del Plata on Thursday, organized by a coalition of left-wing, indigenous and anti-globalization groups, American proposals on free trade also came in for criticism, as did Bush himself.

"We Said No and No Means No: No to Bush, No to FTAA and No to Repaying the Debt," read one large banner at the conference, held in a group of tents and classrooms on the campus of a local university. Several thousand people attended.

"We've had enough of neo-liberalism and the damage it has inflicted on our societies," said Juan Montenegro, who came from Buenos Aires to take part. "Bush is trying to destroy Iraq with bombs and guns and Latin America with an economic program that will rob us of our sovereignty."

The "anti-summit" began early in the week and is to culminate Fridaytoday in expected mass protest marches, led by Alfonso Perez Esquivel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Diego Maradona, the soccer idol. Chavez, with a foot in both of the gatherings here, is expected to be the main orator at a closing protest rally to be held at the main soccer stadium.