Latin American Flashbacks

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It's all very retro. Unlike, say, the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, the protests against the 34-nation Summit of the Americas taking place in this coastal city have a decidedly leftist feel from another era. That much was clear from the Che Guevara banners flying at the "counter summit" rally Friday. Folk singers crooned in Spanish, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave an hours-long speech of Castro-style invective against the United States and George W. Bush. Fidel Castro may not have been invited to the summit, but protestors carried his image on banners all over the place. All of this was a far cry from the inchoate Vegan-anarchist tenor of the anti-globalization demonstrations that have accompanied most gatherings of the captains of the world economy over the past few years. It felt more hard core, like the old-style Left.

Despite the militant iconography, most protesters were peaceful and only a small number rampaged at businesses associated with the U.S. Television here, like in the United States, tended to focus on the most violent images. One station played scenes of violence with Stars and Stripes Forever playing in the background.

It probably didn't help President Bush's mood that Chavez got a warm reception at the meeting of leaders last night. Or that the meeting went much longer than anyone had planned, making a president famous for going to bed at 9 stay up close to midnight. At dinner some of his aides groaned when they saw the delays flash on their BlackBerrys. "They've only gotten to the appetizers," said one at 10 p.m., distressed about the long delay. Still, it would be mistake to dismiss the summit or to think that the region has backslid to the days when extremist politics dominated.

The days of military juntas seem gone forever and even though some of the nations here have a more leftist cast — like Argentina and Brazil, both of which are opposing the Bush plan for a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas — most, including Argentina and Brazil, have continued to make market reforms and create institutions that won the praise of the Bush White House. Friday, the president praised Argentine President Nestor Kirchner for his commitment to the rule of law and creating a climate favorable for investment. Bush planned to echo similar sentiments on his arrival in to Brazil later in the day.

For his part, President Vincente Fox of Mexico gave a nose count suggesting 29 of 34 nations assembled here still favor an FTAA even if major nations like Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina do not. The heads of state will issue a final communique soon, as they meet across town at the Hermitage Hotel, safely away from the protesters. As with all these kinds of events, U.S. officials will pour out of the meeting declaring whatever statement emerges as a major victory. Stay tuned.