Questioned by leaders of Canada and some Latin American nations at the Americas Summit being held here, President Bush was having a hard time selling the idea of a free trade pact for both Americas.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, who intended to use the summit partly to improve relations with Washington, on Monday criticized U.S. economic policies, saying developing countries cannot immediately compete in the cutthroat global economy.
He said even the United States and other rich nations once “asked for time to adjust” to changing economies through agricultural subsidies and other supports. Martin added that the time for those nations to eliminate such programs “is long past due.”
The United States also faced opposition to its insistence on setting a 2005 deadline for the Free Trade Area of the Americas in the summit’s final declaration. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who opposes the accord, has pushed instead for a humanitarian fund that could be used to help countries during financial and natural disasters.
Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo criticized U.S. officials for refusing to lower agricultural subsidies while asking poor nations “to play ball in the free trade court.” Paraguay’s president, Nicanor Duarte, called for “Americas for all people, not for a few.”
Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said: “This isn’t the poorest continent, but it is perhaps one of the most unfair.”
Chavez, in a speech that ran long over the three-minute limit, passionately argued for “a new moral architecture” in the hemisphere that “favors the weakest.”
He said he would like to join the economies of Latin America before any formal trade ties are established with North America. What currently exists, he said, is an “infernal machine that produces more poor people each minute.”
Chavez also pointed out that the United States escaped the Depression not through initiatives like free trade, but through the New Deal, a far-reaching, socialist program that provided government jobs.
As the Venezuelan president spoke, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva nodded and smiled enthusiastically, while Bush, across the room, leaned tiredly on his hand.
Bush, Fox huddle
Although they still have broad disagreements, leaders at the 34-nation Summit of the Americas worked hard Monday to show that relations were improving, pledging to strengthen democracy and fight terrorism in the region.
The most visible example of that diplomatic outreach came when Bush invited Mexican President Vicente Fox to visit his Texas ranch. Fox accepted and praised Bush’s new immigration proposal, which would allow some foreign workers to live temporarily in the United States.
The presidents smiled, shook hands and walked together into the new Monterrey public arena, where heads of state formally inaugurated the two-day summit of the Organization of American States.
Fox’s spokesman, Agustin Gutierrez, said the tone of the bilateral meeting marked a “180-degree turn” from the past year, when Mexico and the United States faced off over the Iraq war and American executions of Mexican nationals.
The Sept. 11 terror attacks also distracted Bush from the immigration overhaul sought by Fox.
Bush also reached out to the rest of Latin America, saying his government was committed to “embracing the challenge of ... bringing all the hemisphere’s people into the expanding circle of development.”
He added that all countries “must work to provide quality education and quality health care for all our citizens, especially those who suffer from HIV/AIDs.”
In another goodwill gesture, Secretary of State Colin Powell signed an agreement turning over to Peru $20 million allegedly stolen by a former Peruvian intelligence chief and stashed in American bank accounts.
Bush referred to another controversial U.S. initiative when he urged countries to ban all corrupt officials from crossing their borders. The United States has asked other leaders to agree to a proposal that would ban corrupt nations from the OAS.
“Today, I signed a proclamation denying corrupt officials entry into my country,” Bush said Monday. “I urge other countries to take similar actions.”
The president also took aim at Chavez, who recently accused the United States of “sticking its nose” into his country’s affairs when Washington urged that he allow a referendum on his recall from office to proceed.
The “support of democratic institutions ... gives hope and strength to those struggling to preserve their God-given rights, whether in Venezuela, or Haiti, or Bolivia,” Bush said.
Chavez told reporters Monday that the United States was suffering from a “lack of information” and “great contradictions” in its attitude toward his country.
“We are working to make clear to the world what we are,” he said. “Venezuela has a vigorous, participative democracy with a country rebuilding itself from scratch.”