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As FTAA trade deal brakes down...
Bush faces protests in Argentina

By Lee Sustar | November 4, 2005

THE FREE Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) will be on life support as George W. Bush stumbles into Argentina for the Summit of the Americas November 4-5 to face a protest by labor unions and social movements and key Latin American presidents largely opposed to the U.S. goals.

Bush's trade agenda was already faltering before he headed south of the Equator, having managed to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) through the House of Representatives last summer by just two votes.

Now Bush finds U.S. aims under even greater pressure in Latin America, thanks to popular revolts and electoral shifts to the left across the region, an economic boom powered by Chinese industry's demand for raw materials, and resistance led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose rallying cry at a recent meeting of South American presidents was "to hell with the FTAA." "The U.S. may be losing the wider war over Latin America's future, despite President Bush's victory" over CAFTA, the Wall Street Journal observed in July.

In place of the FTAA, Chávez is proposing a Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America--ALBA according to its initials in Spanish--named for the hero of the independence struggle from Spain two centuries ago. Chávez has put his money where his mouth is, as Venezuela uses its revenue from skyrocketing oil prices to purchase government bonds across the region and invest in regional oil companies.

According to Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi, Chávez's far-reaching proposals have led to tensions with Brazilian President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, who put forward a far more modest plan for economic integration via the South American Community of Nations. But for President Néstor Kirchner of Argentina--South America's other big economic player--even Lula's proposals for economic integration go too far, reflecting Argentine business' fear of being overwhelmed by neighboring Brazil.

Nevertheless,Chávez's anti-FTAA, anti-Bush rhetoric provides political cover for both Kirchner, who is negotiating debt repayment terms with the International Monetary Fund, as well as the scandal-plagued Lula administration, which has resisted Bush's trade demands on behalf of big Brazilian corporations that demand an end to U.S. agricultural subsidies.

The result is that the Summit of the Americas, planned more than a decade ago as the launch date for the FTAA, was being downplayed by Washington long before scandals overwhelmed the White House.

Robert Zoellick, who served as Bush's first U.S. Trade Representative to strong-arm Latin American governments over the deal, was kicked upstairs to Deputy Secretary of State this year as the FTAA bogged down. So weak is the FTAA that the State Department lowered expectations for the summit with this quote from an anonymous government source, published on its Washington File Web page: "President Bush is not a trade negotiator."

To keep its trade initiative alive, the U.S. has been pushing a free trade area in the Andes, but the effort was set back earlier this when a key Washington ally, Ecuador's President Lucio Gutierrez was driven from office in a popular rebellion. The ouster of Guitierrez--who had himself led a popular mobilization against the neoliberal free-trade agenda before being elected president in 2002--was the latest a series of protests that have forced out presidents in Bolivia (twice), Argentina and Peru.

The left-of-center governments that hold office in most of Latin America--with the exception of Venezuela--haven't broken with pro-business economic policy. Even so, they've had to make concessions to labor and social movements--and with presidential elections due in 12 Latin American countries by the end of 2006, few leaders are eager to line up with Bush's FTAA.

The main exception is Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the sort of right-wing strongman that the U.S. would like to see emerge to crack down on the left across Latin America. But as the mass protests against Bush in Argentina will show, opposition to Washington's notions of order continues to grow.

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