The Argentine resort town of Mar del Plata is in a virtual lock-down as the 34-nation Summit of the Americas opens today (Friday) to examine ways to boost employment and fight poverty in the hemisphere. Security forces and local residents are bracing for massive protests by tens of thousands of demonstrators vociferously opposed to the presence of President Bush, who arrived late Thursday.
Normally bustling with vacationers, Mar del Plata's expansive beaches are deserted as tourists and many residents alike departed well in advance of the fourth Summit of the Americas.
More than 7,000 security personnel have blocked public access to a total of 220 square blocks of prime beach-front territory where President Bush and his counterparts from the hemisphere will be gathered for two days.
"We are not worried [about security threats], but we are busy -- working to prevent any [dangerous] situation that might arise," said Daniel Rodriguez, a spokesman for Argentina's federal police.
But many merchants outside the security zone are taking no chances. Leonardo Fernandez boarded up his furniture shop Thursday, and says he won't open again until Monday. "No one knows, no one has any information about whether there will be incidents, and given that uncertainty we are closing to guard against broken windows or arson," he said.
Fifty-thousand or more protesters are expected to overwhelm the streets surrounding the security zone. On the eve of the summit, many had already taken over Mar del Plata's many plazas.
Socialist activist Marta Rossi says she hopes the demonstrations will remain peaceful, but admits there is no way to know for sure. "In reality we came to protest against Bush, not to harm businesses or the residents here. What is more, we want all the local people to join the protest. But of course there could always be some sort of disturbance by some group," she said.
Speaking with reporters Thursday, the assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Tom Shannon, said demonstrations are to be expected, but that President Bush will be dealing with counterparts from the Americas who were duly elected and therefore reflect the aspirations of the people.
But that is little consolation to Pedro Gomez's whose pizza shop in Mar del Plata was bereft of customers. "If there were no summit, there would be many customers. We do not know why the summit was organized with so much fear (about security). It should be a party. But since everyone is afraid, they are staying at home," he said.
But not everyone is disgruntled. Retiree Ana Maria Velez says all the leaders -- including President Bush -- are welcome in her city and she hopes the summit will be a success. "I think it is wonderful. God blessed me in allowing me to see this summit. As an Argentine, I am proud," she said.