The last time a US President came to Argentina’s humble shores was in 2005. And while George W. Bush probably drank some great wine and had his fill of asado, he probably doesn’t look back on his Argentine sojourn fondly.
The former US President arrived in Mar del Plata for the 4th Summit of the Americas in November 2005, with the specific goal of reaching an agreement on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish), which would have created the biggest free trade area in the world, including almost 800 million people. According to the US government, the proposed agreement would have opened “new markets for Americans and [brought] wealth and jobs to Latin America.” Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out and made Argentine-US relations take a definite turn for the worse.
Bush was already aware the conference wouldn’t be a piece of cake. Days prior to his arrival, he admitted that “the FTAA has stalled.” Even before Air Force One touched the ground, his former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (remember her?) was constantly on the phone negotiating with Argentine Foreign Relations Minister Rafael Bielsa.
And just hours after his arrival, regional leaders gathered at an anti-summit to express how they really felt about the free trade agreement. Accompanied by Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, human rights giant Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, then Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales and union leaders, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez took the stage and spoke the now immortal words, “ALCA, ALCA, al carajo” (“ALCA, ALCA, fuck ALCA”). The crowd cheered and chanted slogans against Bush. “Here, in Mar del Plata, FTAA will be buried!” said Chávez.
Later that day, the real summit started with tough negotiations. Although almost 30 countries backed the proposal, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, three of the largest economies in the region, opposed it fiercely and were joined by Uruguay and Paraguay. Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Chávez were closer than ever, and many thought it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Kirchner criticized the Washington Consensus during his speech and addressed Bush directly: “Your role as a world leader is undeniable. The responsible exercise of that leadership must consider that your economic policies not only provoked misery and poverty, but also added institutional instability that caused the fall of democratic governments.” Bush listened closely and later responded in a press conference: “It’s not easy to host all these countries. It’s particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me.”
Meanwhile, peaceful protests were held against Bush in the city protected (and even militarized) with almost 10,000 security agents. Some radical activists managed to create small riots, which were broadcast worldwide, and dozens were arrested. Protesters argued that the market proposed by the US pushed millions into poverty across the region. Bush’s reputation was already suffering as a result of the invasion of Iraq two years prior, and many polls have since awarded him the title of most unpopular US president ever among Latin Americans.
Ultimately, the summit was a bust. News conferences were postponed, hands weren’t shaken and the final document showed an utter lack of continental unity. The five dissenting countries stated their position: “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 classic post-summit photo had several absences, as many leaders had already left the city, including Bush.
Chávez was delighted with the results. “The great loser today was George W. Bush. The man went away wounded. You could see defeat on his face,” he said.
The trip was described as “disastrous” by a New York Times columnist, and the surprising defeat forced the US to keep negotiating free trade agreements separately with specific countries. It also precipitated the downfall of the US’ relationship with Argentina during the Kirchnerite presidencies, and was a milestone for the leftist leaders in South America, making it a first significant step for the creation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which was later created in 2008 and started to function in 2010. Since then, it has tried to promote the democratic institutions and integrate its members, with a leadership that has leaned to the left, so far.
Thanks, Obama! I mean, Bush.