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Summit ends without date set for talks on free trade zone

Sunday, November 6, 2005

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina -- Leaders from across the Americas ended their two-day summit Saturday without agreeing whether to restart talks on a free trade zone stretching from Alaska to Chile.

Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa said the summit's declaration would state two opposing views: one favoring the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, and another saying discussions should wait until after World Trade Organization talks in December.

The decision came after negotiations extended eight hours past the scheduled deadline. Almost all the leaders left during the discussions and put other negotiators in charge.

Mexico, the United States and 27 other nations wanted to set an April deadline for talks, but that was opposed by Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela.

The United States says the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, stretching from Canada to Chile, would open up new markets for Americans and bring wealth and jobs to Latin America.

The zone's main opponent, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, said it would enslave Latin American workers. He came to the summit vowing to "bury FTAA."

In the declaration, the five dissenting countries stated: "The conditions do not exist to attain a hemispheric free trade accord that is balanced and fair with access to markets that is free of subsidies and distorting practices."

The last-minute haggling came after Brazil -- Latin America's largest economy -- hedged at setting a firm date for talks because it wants to focus on WTO talks.

aimed at cutting tariffs around the world and boosting the global economy.

"Anything we do now, before the WTO meeting, could confuse the facts and we'd be creating an impediment to the WTO," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting at Argentina's most renowned summer resort.

Mar del Plata was calm Saturday after protesters opposed to Bush's presence the FTAA clashed in street battles with riot police, burning and ransacking businesses just 10 blocks from the theater where the summit opened. Sixty-four people were arrested, but police reported no deaths or major injuries.

Security remained tight. A huge downtown section of Mar del Plata remained closed by metal barriers, and police and soldiers toted semiautomatic weapons.

Protests have become commonplace at summits, especially those dealing with free trade and U.S. policies. But Friday's violence was on a much smaller scale than clashes in 2001 during the Americas Summit in Canada, when police detained 400 people and scores were injured.

During a Friday rally, Chavez declared the deal dead in a speech to more than 20,000 demonstrators.

On Saturday, Mexican President Vicente Fox expressed irritation with Chavez, saying: "This is a personal position of the Venezuelan president."

Fox also denied allegations by Chavez that Washington was trying to strong-arm the region into a free trade agreement.

"No one has ever been forced into a free trade deal," he said.

The summit declaration also was expected to address such key issues as job creation, immigration and disaster relief for an area often devastated by hurricanes and earthquakes.

But the battle over the trade zone dominated the meeting, with Chavez pushing for the creation of a trade zone just for Latin America and the Caribbean based on socialist ideals.

Fox argued that the 29 countries that want to forge ahead should form the FTAA on their own -- even though that would dash hopes of creating a bloc eclipsing the European Union.

Leftist activists also protested Friday in Uruguay, Venezuela and Brazil -- where Bush was headed for a much-anticipated visit with Silva. He travels Sunday to Panama.

Bush planned to spend Saturday night in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, and be Silva's guest at a Sunday barbecue.

The visit is aimed at strengthening relations with Silva, who was distrusted by Washington after becoming Brazil's first elected leftist leader in 2003. Since then, Silva -- a former shoeshine boy, grade-school dropout, lathe operator and radical union leader -- has abandoned his leftist rhetoric and has stabilized Brazil's economy.


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