President Bush and the leaders of 33 other Western Hemisphere nations met at the special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, where trade and efforts to reduce poverty top the agenda. There is disagreement between the United States and some nations in the region over what should take priority.
President Bush has made clear that he sees the expansion of free trade in the hemisphere as the most important goal of the summit. Mr. Bush, supported by Mexican President Vicente Fox, promotes the idea that trade leads to prosperity.
But Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula de Silva, speaking in the summit plenary session, challenged the idea that free trade alone could alleviate the region's poverty.
He said economic liberalization has created what he called a perverse model in which economic balance has not been matched by social balance. He called on regional nations to address what he described as a growing gap between rich and poor. The Brazilian leader said the number of people living in extreme poverty in Latin America has grown by more than ten million in recent years and that 26 percent of the region's population survives on less than two dollars a day.
The issue of poverty was also the main theme for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In a reference to Dante's Inferno, Mr. Chavez described all of Latin America as being in his words "at the Gates of Hell." He said nations in the Western Hemisphere need to take action now to reduce inequalities before it is too late.
Such rhetoric is expected from the firebrand Venezuelan leader, who has clashed openly with the United States over his friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and who arrived at the summit saying that such meetings produce little more than a social event.
There has been a clear move to the left-of-center in Latin America in the past few years, according to University of California at San Diego Professor Richard Feinberg, an observer at the summit. He says Brazil is committed to the effort to form a Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement by 2005, but that its government wants more discussion of the social balance issue at another venue dedicated specifically to the trade issue.
Professor Feinberg, who helped organize the first Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994 as a member of the Clinton administration, says President da Silva is reflecting the views of his own people.
There is a lot of hesitancy in Brazil, as we have known from the beginning, with the Free Trade Area of the Americas and as it gets closer to the final negotiations that ambivalence or even opposition in some sectors of Brazil becomes more obvious.
Professor Feinberg says the main challenge for the United States at this summit is to overcome the opposition to free trade and economic liberalization that is growing in many parts of the region. He says the success of this summit may be judged by how much progress is made on this point.