The President's grand vision of a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) is in trouble, as the President has himself acknowledged. Many nations in this region, reeling from economic crises which they believe have been exacerbated by the free market policies favored by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, are more wary of freer trade than they once were. Some of the regiona's most powerful nations, including hosts Argentina, are opposing the measure. When President Bush met with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner Friday morning, both men left admitting that the exchange had been "frank" and "candid"none-too-subtle code words for strong disagreements.
An even sharper conflict is being stoked by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an advocate of what he calls "21st century socialism." Chavez has come to the summit vowing to "bury" the FTAA, and he's even attending a counter summit of protestors opposing free trade. Indeed, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Mar del Plata for the summit, far out of earshot, let alone sight, of the Sheraton Hotel where Mr. Bush is staying and holding many of his meetings. When I asked Bush at a quick press availability about how Americans should think of Chavez and what he would say to him at the meeting, Bush responded: "I will, of course, be polite. That's what the American people expect their president to do." And then he went into a riff about the importance of democratic institutions.
Efforts to push regional free trade agreements seem to be faring better than the grand vision of a united economic zone from the Arctic Circle to Argentina's Tierra del Fuego. There is a push for an Andean free trade agreement involving Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and the U.S. Congress recently ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Indeed, U.S. officials sought to play down the disputes over trade. "This is not a meeting just about trade," said Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon. "This is about the leaders of the American countries who have come together to talk about common goals."