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Chavez, Maradona, protests await Bush summit visit

George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez, are sure to steal the show in this week's summit.

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina – The sparring U.S. and Venezuelan presidents, George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez, are sure to steal the show in this week’s summit of 34 leaders from the Americas with a fight to steer the region’s course.

The November 4-5 meeting in this Argentine beach resort is a rare chance to see the foes in the same forum, as Washington struggles with an increasing number of Latin Americans angry over the Iraq war and years of U.S.-encouraged market reforms.

«The main issue to watch is who is likely to emerge stronger and prevail in terms of overall influence and leadership in the region, be it Chavez or be it Bush,» said Patrick Esteruelas, analyst at the New York-based political consultants Eurasia Group.

Protesters have organized an anti-summit outside the security ring around Mar del Plata’s top hotels. Bush will be the focus of their ire, and Chavez is set to speak on Friday in an event including Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona and families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

Bush, facing low domestic approval ratings, has fewer allies in a region that largely opposes the Iraq war and perceives a lack of interest from Washington in its «backyard.»

The left-leaning and populist Chavez has extended his influence, using oil revenues to aid neighbors in need, like Ecuador, Argentina and Uruguay. He has supplied cheap oil, bought debt and invested in regional companies and television.

U.S. officials have increasingly portrayed Chavez as an authoritarian bully cracking down on foes at home and using his petroleum clout to influence regional politics.

Chavez, meanwhile, has accused Washington of working to undermine his democratically elected government.

The region’s growing ranks of left-leaning leaders, like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, may not always agree with Chavez’s anti-U.S. antics and heavy state intervention in the economy.

But, like him, they want Latin America to look at alternate roads to development after following Washington’s free-market economic model in the 1990s, which many blame for more poverty and unsustainable debts.

Annual per capita income in Latin America is just over $3,000, compared to $40,000 in the United States and $32,000 in Canada.