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Leaders from across the Americas closed a two-day summit Saturday by failing to restart long-stalled talks on a hemisphere-wide free trade accord, with thousands of protesters and five nations led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fighting a successful battle against reviving high-level talks.
The 34-nation summit's declaration included two opposing views: one by 29 countries in favor of moving forward on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, and another by the five dissenting nations stating they weren't yet ready to create the world's largest trade bloc.
The decision came after hours of closed-door wrangling that delayed the summit's close for nearly eight hours. Almost all of the leaders, including US President George W. Bush, left during the discussions and put high-level negotiators in charge of resolving the prickly subject.
Chavez, a self-declared rival of Bush, declared the meeting a victory, saying the long "unedited, intense and frank debate was like none other in a summit."
"It's a shame that they didn't transmit the five-hour debate so that the whole world could see," he said.
The decision capped a week of tensions between the United States and Venezuela, as Bush traveled to the region to mend fences in Latin America.
US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley downplayed the meeting's differences, saying it wasn't necessary to have an agreement at every summit.
"All 34 countries actually talked in terms of enhanced trade and an FTAA, recognizing there are challenges," he told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Brazil.
Although Bush left the summit having made little progress, he will likely continue looking for support during his visit Sunday to Brasilia, where he will be President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's guest at a barbecue.
Bush then visits Panama on Monday before returning to the United States.
The American president's visit to Brazil is aimed at strengthening relations with Silva, who was initially distrusted by Washington after becoming the first elected leftist leader of Latin America's largest economy in 2003.
The summit was the latest international meeting to fall victim to regional divisions over free trade. World Trade Organization talks broke down in Seattle in 1999 and in Cancun in 2003.
Negotiators trying to lay the groundwork for the FTAA also couldn't agree in Miami in 2003, forcing officials to scale back the ambitious plan and putting the issue on a backburner.
In Argentina, 29 nations, led by Mexico and the United States, pushed aggressively to set a deadline as early as April deadline to restart high-level talks.
But that idea was opposed by thousands of protesters, some violent, as well as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela.
Populist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez repeatedly promised to "bury" the FTAA.
In the declaration, the five dissenting countries stated: "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."
"We are not going to negotiate something that is harmful to the interests of our people," Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa said.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe volunteered to try to broker a consensus next year.
The United States says the trade zone would open up new markets for Americans while bringing wealth and jobs to Latin America. But Chavez said it would enslave Latin Americans.
Brazil said it wants to focus on ongoing World Trade Organization talks aimed at cutting tariffs around the world and boosting the global economy.
"Anything we do now, before the WTO meeting, could confuse the facts and we'd be creating an impediment to the WTO," Silva told reporters on the sidelines of the summit at Argentina's most renowned summer resort city.
Mexican President Vicente Fox said the 29 countries that want to forge ahead should form the trade zone on their own.
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