Shopkeepers have boarded up storefronts and residents have fled town as thousands of demonstrators prepared to protest against US President George Bush at the seaside resort of Mar Del Plata.

Bush arrived late on Thursday for the two-day Summit of the Americas but sentiment against him runs high in Argentina due to opposition to the Iraq war and to US backed, free-market policies that many say pushed millions into poverty.

Leftist activists, mostly from Latin America, are holding an alternative Peoples' Summit and Bush's main critic in the region, leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was due to speak in that forum on Friday.

The war of words between Bush and Chavez over trade and development was expected to take centre stage at the formal summit, where Washington will urge Latin American states to further open their economies.

US interests, including Blockbuster video stores and Citibank branches, were covered with corrugated metal shields ahead of protest marches planned early on Friday.

More than 7500 police officers erected a security ring around summit hotels and patrolled the streets and beaches of this normally bustling city of 600,000. Coast guard boats watched the shoreline and air space was restricted. Most schools cancelled classes.

Maradona to lead 

Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona joined other celebrities late on Thursday aboard a Chavez-sponsored private train headed from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata, where Maradona will lead a protest march.

Security was tightened ahead of 
the summit in Argentina

"It gives me pride to be on this train to repudiate the human trash that is Bush," Maradona said before approaching the dimly lit platform, where Boca Juniors soccer club fans greeted him with pounding drums and stadium chants.

The train is also shuttling southward with Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica and Bolivian presidential front-runner, indigenous leader Evo Morales. Chavez himself was to fly in.

"We are here to share in the fight that starts in the communities and barrios," said Morales, a fierce Bush critic.

US anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and other relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq are also expected in town.

Cuba's Fidel Castro, the only leader not invited to the summit, sent a delegation of Cuban athletes to the Peoples' Summit to support his friend Chavez.

Roughly 10,000 demonstrators planned to march some 30 blocks to a stadium where President Chavez planned to give a speech.

He has been Bush's most vocal critic at the 34-nation summit.

The march's route was not expected to bring the protesters near the summit site.

Summit agenda

The summit of 34 leaders will concentrate on job creation as the key to long-term prosperity in Latin America, where the $3000 per capita income is less than 10% of the US average.

"It gives me pride to be on this train to repudiate the human trash that is Bush"

Diego Maradona,
Argentine football legend

Washington's goal is to convince Latin Americans to "unlock" or further open their economies to boost investment, trade and jobs, said Tom Shannon, US assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere at the State Department.

A more prickly issue, the US push to restart stalled talks for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in 2006, may not make much progress in the forum due to resistance among Latin America's big economies, fearful of the impact on their farm sectors.

While the summit's leaders agreed ahead of time to focus the two-day meeting on creating jobs and reducing poverty, in recent days their attention has shifted to the FTAA, a deal proposed by Washington that would break down trade barriers from Alaska to the tip of South America.

Chavez, on the other hand, says free trade is being forced on Latin American countries.

He said such a deal would help only the rich and instead has pushed for an anti-FTAA deal based on the socialist ideals of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar.

FTAA opposition

Chavez has openly supported protesters who have spent all week rallying against free trade.

The Venezuelan leader has promised to "bury" the FTAA.

"We're going to say 'No to Bush' and 'No to FTAA'," said Argentine labour leader Juan Gonzalez.

"We don't have any confidence in anything he might propose here, whatever it is will only prolong hunger, poverty and death in Latin America."

While Cuba was not invited to the summit, the communist island's Parliamentary Speaker Ricardo Alarcon showed up in Mar del Plata, anyway.

He mocked the process, saying: "They are going to take a good photo with Bush, have lunch, eat dinner, and gab some more. What is happening over there is a plan that does no good for the people of the Americas."