Argentina is making final preparations to host the Summit of the Americas, which will be held Friday and Saturday in the Argentine resort town of Mar del Plata. The event will bring together all heads of government in the hemisphere except Cuba to discuss ways to boost employment as a means of fighting poverty and strengthening democracy. Preparations for the summit have been overshadowed by what are expected to be fierce demonstrations against President Bush.
Known for stunning beaches, Mar del Plata is a favorite vacation destination for Argentines of all ages. For now, the town is weathering an unprecedented police presence and a virtual lock-down of many neighborhoods. Argentina's air force has been authorized to shoot down any unidentified planes that violate Mar del Plata's airspace during the summit.
The event has become a lightning rod for discontent regarding U.S. policies to the region and, in particular, President Bush. Celebrities from Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona to Nobel Peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel have said they will take part in anti-Bush demonstrations.
Buenos Aires school teacher Gaby Sardella says she will go to Mar del Plata to protest, as well.
"I am against Bush. I do not like him as a person, I do not like what he does," she said. "He is really detestable. He thinks he has the right to insert himself anywhere in the world."
Polls in many Latin American nations show President Bush as the least popular U.S. leader in decades, with the war in Iraq as a major irritant. Argentine Congressman Jorge Vanossi, whose district spans much of Buenos Aires, is widely regarded as the most pro-U.S. legislator in the country. But even he is not shy about criticizing President Bush.
"The United States has ignored Latin America, concentrating on problems at home, beginning with [the terrorist attacks of] September 11," he said. "But that does not justify forgetting about Latin America."
Under President Bush, the United States has signed and ratified a free trade accord with Central American nations. But a more ambitious proposal for a hemisphere-wide free trade zone has languished, and political observers say it is unlikely President Bush will be able to revive the initiative in Mar del Plata.
Argentine union leader Victor de Gennaro opposes any free trade accord. He says the job of rallying popular sentiment against U.S.-backed proposals has become easier as Mr. Bush's standing in Latin America has suffered. In particular, he says the hemisphere was dismayed to witness what was widely regarded as a weak initial response by the Bush administration to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
"Katrina has demonstrated that Mr. Bush's policies not only affect the countries he invades, they also affect the U.S. people," he said. "It was an embarrassment what happened [after Katrina]. If Mr. Bush cannot take care of his own people, how can he help anyone else?"
Further complicating matters is what is commonly viewed as a growing ideological gulf between the United States and Latin America. In recent years, many nations in the region have elected left-of-center presidents ranging from moderate Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil to socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
Speaking in Washington recently, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Peter DeShazo said the summit theme of creating jobs to fight poverty is universally endorsed. But just how to proceed will be a matter of debate in Mar del Plata.
"There will be differences in the ways of fighting poverty," said Mr. DeShazo. "The Chavez side will look to a major role of the state, and Venezuela is able to do that with the very large oil profits that it is enjoying right now. Others will take the view that the economy has to grow in a sustainable way to create jobs."
Professor of Western hemisphere studies Riordan Roett of Johns Hopkins University says it will be interesting to watch how President Bush interacts with his Venezuelan counterpart. President Chavez has accused Mr. Bush of planning to invade his country.
"Chavez loves the summits, and I think a real concern for the United States is a confrontation between Mr. Chavez and President Bush," said Professor Roett. "Since Mr. Chavez takes every opportunity to lambaste, criticize and insult the president [Bush], that is not a very positive environment for the president to walk into."
But not everyone is focused on potential controversies emerging from the summit.
"Opposing the United States is not a good thing for us," said Buenos Aires architect Alberto Epstein. "I do not agree with Mr. Bush's international policies, but for Argentina this is not the moment to ally ourselves with [President] Chavez or to position ourselves against the United States."