As leaders from 34 nations prepare to go to Argentina for the Summit of the Americas, a coalition of groups opposed to free trade and other measures backed by President Bush is holding a "People's Summit" in the resort town of Mar del Plata.  The gathering will end with marches and protests Friday, blocks away from where heads of government will be meeting to discuss ways to boost employment and fight poverty in the hemisphere. Local residents are worried that demonstrations could turn violent.

Meeting at a basketball stadium, socialist political groups, union leaders, and an assortment of leftist activists are denouncing President Bush as well as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas that would allow goods to transit tariff-free from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

Among the participants is Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to Argentina's former military government. "What fundamentally interests me is that the people unite, that they begin to formulate alternative proposals [to those made by leaders in the hemisphere],"  he said.  "The darkest hour is before sunrise. We are pointing towards a sunrise that will benefit the lives of the people."

Outside the basketball stadium, at a table overflowing with booklets extolling the socialist programs of Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuban activist Duniesky Contrerras, 21, says he came to the People's Summit to promote radical change in the Americas.

"The main goal is to fight. To fight terrorism, to fight against the government of the United States, to fight against war, to fight against injustice and globalization, to fight for solidarity," he said.

Mr. Contrerras adds that the leaders who will meet on the other side of Mar del Plata Friday and Saturday will have no choice but to listen if the people unite.

He denounces as unjust the exclusion of Mr. Castro from the Summit of the Americas, which encompasses nations belonging to the Washington-headquartered Organization of American States. Asked if he thinks the hemisphere is moving  closer to Cuba's communist system, Mr. Contrerras shrugs.
"I would not say it is moving more towards the Cuban model. I would say more towards what is needed: a more just, collective society," he added.

Meeting alongside the People's Summit is the Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples, featuring Native American leaders from throughout the hemisphere. Arthur Manuel of the Shushuwap Nation of western Canada says much of the agenda of the People's Summit mirrors that of indigenous people.

"I think one of the common themes is the [opposition to] the Free Trade Area of the Americas," he explained.  "If there is an FTAA the way it is designed, it would give our land rights to the trans-national corporations, and that would be wrong. So there is a commonality, whether we are talking about forestry in British Columbia or forestry in Argentina. Indigenous people are always the ones left out of the picture."

The Free Trade Area of the Americas has yet to be negotiated, and proponents point out that provisions can be inserted to protect the rights of Native Americans and others. The Bush administration has pushed for the FTAA to be included in the agenda of the Summit of the Americas, but has met stiff resistance from nations like Brazil and Venezuela.

In defending the proposal, Mr. Bush recently said that open trade is more effective than foreign aid and international loans in addressing people's needs, combating poverty and making nations fiscally stronger. He also said he is aware that not all of his policy decisions regarding Latin America are popular, but that the nations of the region do not have to agree with the United States all the time in order to maintain good relations.

Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to converge on Mar del Plata by Friday. Argentina has deployed 8,000 security forces to the seaside municipality ahead of the summit.

Despite the heavy police presence, local residents say they are worried demonstrations could turn violent and ruin Mar del Plata's image as an idyllic tourist destination.

Local taxi driver Jorge Casella says he has no doubt that security forces will maintain order in the immediate area where the heads of government will meet, but wonders if police will venture into surrounding neighborhoods if trouble arises. He says he hopes that demonstrators will remain peaceful.

"Protesting has its uses, but not if done violently. It is fine to be against the war in Iraq, foreign debt, the IMF, but if opposition is expressed through violence it harms workers," he explained.