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Summit of the Americas Opens in Argentina

The Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, is under way with leaders from 34 countries in attendance. Tens of thousands of demonstrators are also making their voices heard in the streets of this seaside resort.

It is a day for summitry and protest in Mar del Plata.

Leaders from around the hemisphere are holding their talks in a virtually deserted and barricaded part of the city. Three rings of steel fencing and checkpoints separate them from the demonstrators.

At issue is the best way to fight poverty in, what President Bush calls, the neighborhood. At a series of bilateral and regional meetings before the official opening session of the summit, the U.S. president spoke of free trade as a way to bring prosperity, and urged continued economic reforms.

Following his talks with the summit host, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, Mr. Bush referred to that country's bid to renegotiate its debt with the International Monetary Fund. The president offered some moral support, saying the Argentine leader has made tough decisions that could win favor with the IMF.

"He has been an outspoken person for reform," said President Bush. "I listened very carefully to his point of view. I was pleased the United States was helpful during the early part of his term with the IMF, and I suggested his record was such now that he could take his case to the IMF with a much stronger hand."

Mr. Kirchner described their talks as candid, and said he was satisfied with the outcome.

"It wasn't a meeting looking for nice words, but to speak the truth and both of us did just that," said Nestor Kirchner.

Presidents Bush and Kirchner could not hear the words of the protesters who have gathered in this town for the summit. But the two leaders left no doubt they are aware of their presence, with Mr. Bush referring to the massive security arrangements made by the Argentine government.

"It is not easy to host all these countries," he said. It is particularly not easy to host me."

As they were meeting, tens of thousands of demonstrators were marching in a chilly light rain from the security perimeter to a football stadium a few kilometers away. They sang a tune often heard at matches, changing the lyrics into an anti-Bush chant.

The demonstrators have said they are holding a people's summit. Speakers at their rally, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, ranted against the Iraq War and the Bush administration's push for a hemispheric free trade zone.

U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been rocky since President Chavez came to power. When asked what he might say to Mr. Chavez during the course of the summit, President Bush said simply, "I will be polite," adding he is sure that is what the American people expect.