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Brazil protesters invade firms

Critics rally ahead of Bush's visit to Latin America

On the eve of President Bush's trip to Brazil, women from the farm workers movement closed an iron ore mine in Nova Lima. Protesters criticized the impact of big companies on the poor. (ALEX DE JESUS/LIGHT PRESS via ASSOCIATED PRESS)

SAO PAULO -- Landless farmers invaded a mine, a bank , and other corporate property in Brazil yesterday to protest the impact of big companies on the poor and President Bush's visit to Latin America's largest nation.

Protesters, most of them women from the Via Campesina farm workers movement, briefly shut down an iron ore mine, invaded an ethanol distillery , and took over the Rio de Janeiro offices of Brazil's National Development Bank on the eve of Bush's visit.

Fresh graffiti reading "Get Out, Bush! Assassin!" in bright red letters popped up along busy highways near the locations in Sao Paulo where Bush will appear as he kicks off a five-nation Latin American tour.

Protest leaders plan to draw as many as 15,000 people for a two-mile march today before Bush arrives in South America's largest city to forge an ethanol energy alliance with the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva .

"Bush is coming to Brazil as a messenger boy for the multinational companies, the agribusiness companies, the oil companies , and the automobile companies that want to control the biofuels," said Joao Pedro Stedile, leader of the powerful Landless Rural Workers' Movement , which helped organize yesterday's protests.

Organizers denounced foreign investment in the vast sugarcane fields that are used to produce Brazil's ethanol.

United States policy in Latin America has been built around free-trade agreements, anti- narcotic programs , and the war against terrorism.

Yesterday, Bush defended free trade against criticism that it is one-sided and favors the US "I truly believe that one of the most effective ways to eliminate poverty is through free and fair trade," the president said in an interview with CNN En Español.

The US is the world's largest ethanol producer -- using corn -- but Brazil is the biggest exporter and has much more land to dedicate to ethanol production as international demand grows. The left-leaning protesters say large corporations are bound to pocket most of the profits while poor cane cutters will continue to receive meager pay.

"The pact between Brazil and the US for the promotion of ethanol is sinister," said Bishop Tomas Balduino, head of the Roman Catholic Church's Land Pastoral group, which helps poor farmers. "It's just going to promote death, marginalization, poverty , and the destruction of the environment because it defends the interest of large multinationals."

Bush's visit is also aimed at shoring up support for America in a region that has seen a sharp political tilt to the left.

"It is obviously an offensive to contain the progressive, democratic forces that are struggling for the independence and emancipation of other countries," Balduino said.

Bush will head on Friday to Uruguay, where marches and protests were planned in the capital of Montevideo and the city of Colonia del Sacramento , where he will meet with President Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay.

Army General Jorge Rosales said elite army units will provide security alongside thousands of police officers.

Bush will not visit Argentina. However, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has established himself as a regional leftist rival of the US, will travel to Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires to lead protests against Bush in a soccer stadium Friday.

Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo , a group still seeking sons and daughters missing from the country's 1976-83 dictatorship, will join the event.

Brazil is mounting what has been described as its biggest security effort ever in Sao Paulo.

including Brazilian troops and FBI and US Secret Service agent, will be on hand during Bush's almost 24-hour visit.

Bush is expected to travel in a 60-car caravan through streets that will be closed to traffic, and sharpshooters will be posted on rooftops, Brazilian media reported.