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Bush's trade initiative picks up little steam in Argentina

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina—President Bush and 33 other leaders of the Americas left a two-day summit in this seaside city Saturday deeply divided over a proposed hemisphere-wide free trade zone that the United States has advocated for more than a decade.

After hours of negotiations, the countries attending the Summit of the Americas couldn't even agree whether to continue negotiations on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas next year, as the United States and other supporters proposed.

The final declaration of the meeting simply agreed to disagree—stating member countries were divided on the issue.

The free trade zone proposal dominated debate both within the summit and in angry protests on the streets of this city of 600,000, where opposition to the idea was fierce. On Friday, critics sparked a 90-minute riot. The streets on Saturday were calm.

Five countries—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela—withheld support for a proposal to continue talks, while the United States and Mexico led the push to complete negotiations on the free trade zone.

A commission will be created to study the issue, but any discussion of the proposal is delayed until after the Doha Round trade negotiations of the World Trade Organization in December.

"This is not a failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas," said Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa. He said if certain conditions are met, negotiations could move forward.

Bush, who had come to the summit with low expectations, did not comment and left Argentina before the final mandate was even agreed upon.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, who emerged at the summit as a spokesman for countries in favor of the free trade zone, said early Saturday that he was disappointed with negotiations.

"For Mexico and all the countries in the continent—as we affirmed in Quebec, Canada, four years ago (at the previous summit)—it's in our economic interest to use commerce, free commerce, the market system to stimulate employment and improve the income of our people," he said.

Fox and other supporters said the free trade zone could be created without the dissenters, at least through bilateral and regional accords. In the absence of a wider pact, the United States has tried to negotiate separate trade agreements with Central American and Andean countries.

The proposed free trade zone, which was initially envisioned to be operational by this year, would eliminate or substantially lower tariffs on goods moving between North and South American countries. It also would streamline customs and remove other barriers to trade.

But the plan has stalled over disagreements over U.S. farm subsidies, which some Latin American leaders say would be unbalanced and unfair to their nations. The United States also hopes to put in place hemisphere-wide intellectual property standards that could reduce piracy of copyrighted material.

Bush's efforts to resuscitate the plan has met stiff opposition, particularly from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who presided over a massive rally at a soccer stadium Friday where he declared the proposal "buried."

Chavez, a close ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro, said the trade zone would only widen the gap between Latin America's rich and poor. Chavez is a frequent critic of Bush, having accused him of everything from attempting to overthrow his government in a 2002 coup to preparing to launch a military invasion against Venezuela.

Saturday night, he applauded the unified front Venezuela and other South American countries put up against the trade zone.

Chavez's speech, coming just before the summit's start Friday, set the tone for the negotiations. The Brazilian foreign minister said later, borrowing Chavez's words, that it was not the intention of Brazil to bury the idea.

The summit, the first leg of Bush's five-day, three-country Latin America tour, has given the president little relief from his domestic problems. Bush tended to two major domestic issues Saturday: the nomination of federal appeals court Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and the federal investigation into who inside the White House leaked the name of an undercover CIA agent to the media.

White House officials Saturday released a memo ordering staffers to attend mandatory refresher briefings starting Tuesday on ethical behavior and how to handle classified material.

The briefings come following the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on federal perjury and obstruction of justice charges in connection with the leak investigation.

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Hopgood is a special correspondent for The Miami Herald.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-AMERICAS

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