Hugo Chavez and George W Bush

Worthy though the aims and objectives of the fourth Summit of the Americas may be, the real focus of interest at this coming weekend’s gathering of 34 elected heads of state in Mar del Plata will be the expected clash between Hugo Chavez and George W Bush.

The rumbustious Venezuelan leader arrives in the normally quiet Argentine seaside resort on a roll. His popularity has been growing on the back of his country’s oil wealth and his government’s largesse in the region.

Last Thursday Mr Chavez promised to “revolutionise” the summit and said he would be urging the heads of state to “send the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas agreement to hell”.

As for the US, Mr Chavez likes to blame Uncle Sam for most of the world’s ills and rarely misses an opportunity to attack the man he dubs “Mr Danger”. Mr Bush, of course, has his own vision for the region: free trade, market-oriented reform and democracy.

But he will need to be on his guard - a slanging match almost always works to the Venezuelan leader’s advantage. It should at least make for good theatre.

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Argentine summitry

As for the meeting itself, it is likely to every bit as much a waste of time as the previous three summits that have taken place at three to four year intervals since 1994, in Miami, Santiago and Quebec.

The “themes” and “discussion issues” (create jobs to reduce poverty, strengthen democratic governance and develop new ethical paradigms around the idea of decent jobs) included in the press pack are blandly all-encompassing and uncontroversial.

The space for any meaningful discussions, certainly any involving the mass media, private sector and “civil society”, is likely to rigorously circumscribed by the overriding need to provide security for President Bush as he makes his first visit to Argentina, the Latin American country where anti-Americanism is most strident. No fewer than 7,000 policemen will be on duty.

There is a no-fly zone within a 100-mile radius of Mar del Plata. Advocates of summitry argue that the conventions and charters that typically emerge from these events provide a mechanism to ensure that signatories keep to the path of democracy and market-friendly economics.

This may be the case but it is difficult to see why they cannot be negotiated within the context of the Organisation of American States’ general assemblies. Nor is it immediately obvious what value the representatives of multilateral banks and myriad United Nations organisations bring to the activities of the working parties and monitoring groups set up to monitor implementation of said charters and conventions.

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Brazilian manoeuvres

Next week will be a quiet one in Brasi­lia, Brazil’s capital. Wednesday is a public holiday and most legislators - who anyway spend Mondays and Fridays “in their constituencies” – won’t bother turning up just for Tuesday or Thursday.

But make no mistake, storm clouds are gathering. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has survived five months of scandal, following accusations of vote-buying and campaign finance shenanigans by leaders of his Workers’ Party (PT). Over the last few weeks Mr Lula da Silva has looked to be recovering, as both major opposition parties - the centrist social democrats (PSDB) (of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso) and right wing Liberals (PFL) - showed restraint in their response to the scandals.

But now it seems that the opposition is growing unhappy that events have not played more to their advantage. Their alarm at the president’s rising chances of securing a second-term in next October’s elections is unmistakeable.

Their earlier calculation - that impeachment might damage economic stability to such an extent that their own electoral chances would suffer - is under review. The social democrats are preparing to launch another congressional inquiry, specifically into illegal campaign finance since 2002 (when Mr Lula da Silva was elected).

They may even start to back demands for the president’s impeachment. A more aggressive opposition campaign would come at a price. Workers Party leaders would respond by pressing ahead with their demands for inquiries into allegations that the social democratic government (1998 to 2002) was guilty of similar abuses.

If the result turned out to be that both the government and opposition suffered declining poll ratings, the field would be open to other aspirants for the presidency. Brazil might end up next year with a lame duck president and a fragmented legislature.

That sounds like a recipe for more of the same: political drift, muddle-through government and relatively low rates of economic growth.

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Brazilian agriculture

One sign of the growing importance of the larger developing countries

on the global stage is that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is dedicating more of its research capacity to their

study. One message of the latest OECD report on a non-OECD country – covering Brazilian agriculture and to be unveiled in Sao Paulo on Monday – is that, despite Brazil’s significant competitive advantage in agriculture, the benefits

of liberalisation, though considerable, will not be unalloyed. The removal of agricultural subsidies will, says the report, lead to an increase in prices. And while bigger agribusinesses are well placed to take advantage of the new market opportunities, smaller Brazilian farmers could find the going tougher than it is already. Policies to tackle rural poverty will be needed.

Unemployment up in Brazil

Additional reporting Jonathan Wheatley in Sao Paulo

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