MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina – President Bush arrived Thursday in the Argentine resort city of Mar del Plata, hoping to resurrect a stalled free-trade initiative and sell his vision of how open markets best create employment and reduce inequality.

Jobs and democracy are the theme of the fourth Summit of the Americas, which begins today. Leaders of 34 nations across the Western Hemisphere, shadowed by tens of thousands of protesters railing against U.S. foreign and economic policies, will attend three days of scrupulously planned receptions, dinners and grand meetings.

The participants will also hold dozens of small group meetings and bilateral talks. This is where messages are delivered, favors are asked and arms are twisted, sometimes ever so slightly.

Bush, for example, will meet in small group sessions with Central American and Andean leaders. Today he will have a 1-on-1with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, an ally in U.S. efforts to boost commerce from Alaska to Argentina by persuading countries to ease tariffs and other trade barriers.

Bush will also talk with the host of the summit, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner. Kirchner wants Bush to go to bat for Argentina in its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Bush wants Kirchner to lend a hand reviving the Free Trade of the Americas agreement.

These are sticky issues for both countries. Argentina is trying to get the IMF to restructure loans but not put conditions on how Kirchner manages his economy. The United States is trying to restart negotiations on a hemisphere-wide trade agreement that seems further away today than it was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton sold the concept at the first Summit of the Americas in Miami.

Bush acknowledged Wednesday that talks are stalled on the FTAA, as the pact is known. But to Venezuela and other countries in the region, the initiative is not stuck so much as dead.

Latin America is split on the accord. Free-trade supporters such as Mexico, Chile and Colombia have so far been unable to win over Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and others who say the opening of markets and borders has failed to help the region’s poor and working classes.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he was coming to the summit not to raise the FTAA but to bury it. And Chavez’s top diplomat called it “a bone stuck in the throat.”

“This summit was not convened to deal with the FTAA but to discuss the generation of employment,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez told the Buenos Aires daily Clarin. “If the call had gone out merely to talk about the FTAA, few would have bothered to come.”

So difficult is the issue that foreign ministers were still negotiating Thursday over the wording of the final declaration that the presidents will sign today or Saturday.

Supporters wanted the document to specify a restart of the FTAA process. Opponents, led by the Brazilians, were pushing only for broad language touting the potential benefits of freer trade.

And that has nothing to do with the nitty-gritty of the agreement itself. There are large gulfs among some countries over such key issues as subsidies and protections for vulnerable domestic industries. Brazil and Argentina, for example, say they have no reason to talk free trade with the United States until Washington cuts or eliminates subsidies to farmers.

“Free trade is a valid global principle,” said Roberto Lavagna, Argentina’s minister of the economy. “But free trade is not the liberating of industrial goods and services and the protecting and subsidizing of agricultural goods. Either the liberation is global or we have managed trade that favors some and hurts others.”

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