The 34-nation Summit of the Americas has concluded in Mar del Plata, Argentina without accord on a topic that came to dominate the gathering: trade within the region. Intense negotiations continued hours after the scheduled close of the two-day event, with President Bush leaving the gathering ahead of virtually all other leaders.
In the end, they agreed to disagree on a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that would allow goods to transit tariff-free from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. As the last summit participants were preparing to leave Mar del Plata, Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa told reporters a final document was crafted to reflect divergent points of view between two major groups of nations.
He said, "With respect to the FTAA, there were a group of countries that find no obstacle in continuing negotiations within the FTAA as it exists right now. In another paragraph, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Venezuela find that conditions do not exist to negotiate the FTAA as proposed."
With the exception of Venezuela, the dissenting nations constitute a regional trade bloc known as Mercosur. Mr. Bielsa noted that Mercosur nations believe they have a competitive advantage in producing agricultural goods, and that they do not believe the FTAA will go far enough to address sizable agricultural subsidies that exist for farmers in nations like the United States. As a result, he said, Mercosur nations prefer to await the results of the next World Trade Organization meeting next month in Hong Kong, where they expect the topic of agricultural subsidies by wealthy nations to be addressed.
The FTAA has the backing of 29 other summit participants, including the United States. The Bush administration, which argues the FTAA would boost prosperity and reduce poverty throughout the hemisphere, had hoped the summit would serve to revive the initiative, which was originally proposed some ten years ago and which its first architects had envisioned would already be in place by this year.
But if the Summit of the Americas dashed hopes of advancing the FTAA, it also appears to have foiled the ambitions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who, as the gathering was getting underway Friday, boasted that it would be "the tomb" of the hemisphere-wide trade proposal.
Argentine Foreign Minister Bielsa suggested nothing could be further from the truth. He said, "This is not the end of the FTAA. The FTAA is a side note to a summit that was dealt with something else. It dealt with [creating] decent jobs, reducing poverty and democratic governance."
There was no final public appearance by the leaders, and President Bush did not speak with reporters before leaving for Brazil, the second stop on a three-nation trip that will also take the U.S. leader to Panama. But administration officials are expressing quiet satisfaction with the summit's outcome, saying important topics were discussed and some progress achieved.
The two-day gathering of hemispheric leaders attracted tens of thousands of leftist activists to Mar del Plata from Argentina and beyond. Friday, they marched to protest the presence of President Bush and gave a hero's welcome to President Chavez. Anti-Bush protests descended into violence later in the day, with several dozen local businesses ransacked and looted.