By most press accounts, President Bush took a pounding at the recent Americas Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. But two other presidents, Nestor Kirchner of Argentina and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, have the most bruises -- and all of them were self-inflicted.
Though Mr. Bush endured street protests and stiff moments, most hemispheric leaders agreed on U.S.-backed policies, while others conditionally accepted them. Only Hugo Chavez was in stark opposition. Neither he nor Argentina's Mr. Kirchner had any luck peddling their populist agendas.
Normally such conclaves are scripted months in advance. Presidents from 34 countries in the hemisphere give carefully crafted speeches and sign prearranged declarations.
But this time, host Argentina pulled a fast one, devising a scenario to scuttle free trade and embarrass the United States.
As is the host's prerogative, Argentina chose the theme: "Creating Jobs to Fight Poverty and Strengthen Democratic Governance." But the idea was to expand the state's role state and coax multilateral lenders to fund more wasteful social programs, not create a welcoming environment for job-producing industries.
The summit's chief planner, Argentine Deputy Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, said the theme reflected the "urgency of closing the gap between rich and poor." To keep counterparts from other nations off-balance, his team argued the contents of the final declaration well into the summit itself.
Mr. Kirchner opened the festivities ungraciously by blaming the United States and the International Monetary Fund for regional woes. His government welcomed thousands of leftist demonstrators to Mar del Plata, where they held an alternative "Peoples Summit" denouncing George Bush. Some turned violent, tossing Molotov cocktails, smashing windows and looting stores while police watched.
Mr. Chavez gleefully addressed these groups, along with former soccer idol Diego Maradona and populist Bolivian presidential contender Evo Morales. Jumping up and down giddily, Mr. Chavez said he would "bury" the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
These antics backfired. Without a scripted final declaration, delegates engaged in a real debate centered on free trade, not the free-lunch programs Mr. Kirchner and Mr. Chavez hoped to showcase. Mexican President Vicente Fox called on 29 pro-trade countries to join forces and march forward on their own.
Mr. Fox and company thereby not only salvaged a declaration gone astray, but turned it into an frank reflection of existing support for free markets. Four other states -- Mercosur members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay -- conditioned their endorsement on the United States dropping its harmful farm subsidies, a reasonable position. Venezuela held out alone, standing by its vague Bolivarian trade plan to replace commerce with heaps of aid to poor nations.
Behind the scenes, the United States and Uruguay inked a bilateral investment treaty to guarantee equal treatment for domestic and foreign businesses in both countries, as well as strengthen existing trade. The U.S. already is Uruguay's largest trade partner and a major source of foreign investment.
Afterward, President Bush met productively with Brazilian counterpart Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, who remarked, "We are working to negotiate the removal of unjustified barriers to our bilateral trade." Mr. da Silva pledged to bring down local farm subsidies if Mr. Bush does so as well.
On TV screens around the world, Hugo Chavez looked like a thuggish buffoon, linking arms with street mobs and a fallen soccer star fresh out of drug rehab. Later, he hurled insults at Mexico's President Fox, deriding his summit leadership and comment some presidents (like Mr. Chavez) "blame other countries for their problems."
Yet the meeting was hardly a resounding success. Any debate mostly on trade ignores deep political problems in many hemisphere societies. There should have been more discussion of reforms to end deviously complex business regulations, curb corruption, reinforce property rights and strengthen rule of law -- all merely alluded to in the final declaration.
However, the summit could have been far worse. It could have embraced Mr. Kirchner's and Mr. Chavez's half-baked socialist schemes. Instead, regional leaders overwhelmingly committed to the slowly but steadily consolidating the FTAA.
Now comes the hard part of turning promises into action.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Times