Demonstrators Protest President Bush

As thousands of protesters demonstrated against him outside the Summit of the Americas on Friday, President Bush told reporters that he viewed his participation as an "opportunity to positively affirm our belief in democracy and human rights and human dignity."

Bush praised Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, but neither leader took questions at a brief media appearance together.

Thousands of protesters demonstrated outside the summit. Many called Bush a "terrorist" and a "fascist." Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona helped lead one demonstration, wearing a T-shirt accusing Bush of war crimes.

The demonstrations were expected.

In an apparent reference to his unpopularity in the region, Bush said to Kirchner, "It's not easy to host all these countries -- particularly not easy to host perhaps me. But thank you for doing it."

Kirchner, speaking through a translator, said the two had "a very important meeting" and were "quite candid" in discussions on numerous issues "related to our bilateral relations."

Economics on the agenda

One of those issues involves the International Monetary Fund.

Argentina is seeking a new IMF loan agreement. The fund helped Argentina out of a major economic crisis in 2002. But Argentine leaders have complained that they're not getting the kind of deal they need now.

"The president was quite firm in his belief that the IMF ought to have a different attitude toward Argentina," Bush said. But he did not express support for Argentina's position, instead sticking by previous assertions that he would leave that between Argentina and the IMF.

Bush said Kirchner has made "wise decisions" that helped Argentina's economy change "in quite dramatic fashions." He added that Kirchner's economic track record makes it possible for him to "take his case to the IMF with a much stronger hand."

Summit with 34 leaders began Friday

The president landed Thursday night in Mar del Plata, a seaside city about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires, for the fourth Summit of the Americas, which got under way Friday with 34 leaders in attendance.

Trade issues and fighting poverty are expected to be major topics of conversation.

The visit allows the president to take a break from political turbulence in Washington.

Chief among the controversies at home: On Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to investigators and a grand jury in a CIA leak inquiry.

In Argentina, Bush will come face-to-face with a man his administration has criticized as a menace to hemispheric stability -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a left-leaning populist who routinely denounces Bush as "Mr. Danger" and refers to the United States as "the Empire."

Among the ways Chavez has chosen to tweak Washington's nose is by embracing Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was not invited to the summit because he is not democratically elected.

U.S. downplays Chavez

U.S. officials downplayed any Bush-Chavez subplot at the proceedings.

"This summit is not about Hugo Chavez," U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters Wednesday. "We've had some long-standing concerns about the policy for his government. This is not news."

Hadley added, "The purpose of the summit is for the democratically elected leaders to get together and reaffirm the fact that there is really a shared vision for the hemisphere that is based on democracy and free markets and free trade."

Bush, who had not been to Argentina, will also make stops in Brazil on Saturday and Panama on Sunday.

The president has insisted that the relationship between the United States and Latin America remains good, despite polls showing rising anti-Americanism and his own personal unpopularity in the region.

"I understand not everybody agrees with the decisions I've made, but that's not unique to Central or South America," he said. "Truth of the matter is, there's people who disagree with the decisions I've made all over the world. But that's what happens when you make decisions."

Bush making push for trade agreement

Bush's first event Friday morning spotlights U.S. support for removing trade restrictions across the hemisphere.

The president will start the day meeting with leaders from the six countries participating in the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which was narrowly approved by Congress in July after a furious push by the White House.

The United States also has been pushing, so far without success, for creation of a free-trade zone that would stretch across the Americas. The Free Trade Area of the Americas has been a topic of discussion in previous summits.

Bush acknowledged Wednesday that the process is "stalled," though Hadley later said the United States is not giving up on the effort.

"It's still something we're working on. Obviously, it has not moved as quickly as we would have liked," Hadley said.

Bush will also have a one-on-one meeting Friday with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, as well as a group meeting with leaders from the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The first session of the summit is Friday afternoon, followed by a formal dinner for the heads of state in attendance.

In January 2004, Bush attended a special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, in what amounted to a kind of fence-mending visit for Bush and the United States' chief allies in the Western Hemisphere.

Previous summits were held in Canada in 2001, Chile in 1998 and Miami, Florida, in 1994 -- in addition to a 1996 meeting on sustainable development in Bolivia.