Leftists groups, workers, students, and others opposed to the forging of a new free trade deal and the politics of George W. Bush, assembled at 7am in the city for a march which ended at a packed soccer stadium where Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, rallied at least 25,000 people against the free trade summit.
Mar del Plata, a beachfront ocean resort town for many middle class families from Buenos Aires, had all but become a police-controlled ghost town by the time the majority of the protestors arrived. Many protestors in attendance expressed anti-FTAA sentiments.
Juliana Cucci, a 23 year old psychology student living in Mar del Plata participated in the march along with friends from a university student group called Comperhencia. "I came mainly to support the pueblo and to say no to Yankee neo-liberal economics. They hurt us in every way, from education to our economy." Then with a flip of her short brown hair, she added, "well, also to see Silvio Rodriguez play."
Rodriguez, a famous singer throughout Latin America, traveled from his home in Cuba to play at the Anti-Summit, which took place at a large soccer stadium later in the afternoon. There, the many political groups, from Canada to Argentina converged to, as Chavez put it, "bury FTAA in a tomb."
Nicolas Cabrera, a 22 year old history student from the Buenos Aires suburb Moron, also wanted "to be a part of the process to help stop ALCA". Goateed, with a head of curly brown hair, and a member of the Socialist party, he believes "the ideas of Chavez are those of the future and that the Yankee discourse is one of exclusion."
Sticking out in the stadium among the sea of Ernesto "Che" Guevara t-shirts and the posters of President Bush fashioned with an Adolf Hitler mustache was a group called "North Americans Against Bush". "We are here to show Argentina that by no means do all people in the US support the Bush agenda. And we are trying to communicate that as much as possible to our brothers and sisters here in Argentina" said 40 year old Washington State resident Steven Walker, who traveled to Argentina solely for the protest.
After the first protest march and gathering at the soccer stadium came and went peacefully, the energy of the protestors continued to be directed at voicing opposition to imperialism and US foreign policies.
"When people say Bush, many Argentines directly link him with former [Argentine] president Menem. And to be frank, Menem is basically considered the devil," said 25 year old Leonardo Redondo, a musician from the town La Plata. "We have a lot of wealth here in Argentina, and this is Bush’s interest. I think that is why there is a lot of anger towards the Yankees right now, not so much at the people, but with the government, because it wants to exploit us."
Others expressed even less sympathetic opinions.
"Bush is the biggest killer in history," shouted Mariana Routien, an anthropology student and member of the MST, Momiento Socialista Trabajador (Socialist Worker Movement) from Rosario as bottle rockets and other fire crackers flew by overhead. "He wants to trap and exploit Latin America, rob in Iraq, and kill at his will. Bush and Yankees, get out of Latin America," she hollered in a furious tone.
As the second march advanced closer to the police barricades, set up as an elaborate security measure around the beach front area where the heads of American states were meeting, some protestors began collecting rocks, firing sling shots, and swinging wooden clubs in the air, preparing for an inevitable clash with the police.
As the first tear gas canister flew into the crowd, releasing white plumes of smoke, protesters fled in all directions. Only some returned, regrouped and proceeded on. More tear gas followed as those with wooden clubs began smashing glass on store fronts and public phone booths.
The violence peaked as some protestors lobbed Molotov cocktails into a bank, torching the first floor of the building. From there, the police started advancing, this time firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, forcing the remaining protesters to retreat. Some protestors then dragged out furniture from stores, piled it in the street, set it ablaze, and began prancing around in the middle of the street. Ultimately, the police arrested over 60 people.
In the end, political leaders attending the summit failed to agree on a regional free trade zone. Venezuelan President Chavez and other critics of the Bush administration blame US-backed free trade policies for the poverty which has plagued the region for decades. A shift to the left among Latin American governments has been gaining momentum in recent years. Bush administration officials have tried in vain to put this shift in check. According to recent polls, George W. Bush is the most unpopular US president in the region’s history.
Sammy Loren, a film maker and writer currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, writes regularly for UpsideDownWorld.org.