Argentine farmers lash out at government restrictions

A tire burns at a road blockade erected by angry farmers in the province of La Pampa, Argentina in late March 2008.
A tire burns at a road blockade erected by angry farmers in the province of La Pampa, Argentina in late March 2008. Joaquin Rodriguez / Archivo Latino / MCT

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — More than two years of tensions between Argentina's government and the country's powerful farm sector have exploded as farmers have set up roadblocks and refused to release their production to protest an export tax increase on some products.

On Tuesday, farmers had mounted some 150 roadblocks throughout this 40 million-person country, snarling traffic on some of the country's principal highways. They also have refused to release much of their production, leading to shortages at markets.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner added fuel to the fire Tuesday night by strongly denouncing the farmers and accusing them of ingratitude for protesting while earning record profits. Farmers and their supporters reacted immediately, filling streets around the country condemning the speech.

"I will not yield to any extortion," Fernandez de Kirchner said in the televised-speech from the presidential palace. "I can understand the interests of the sector, but I want them to understand that I have to govern for the interests of all Argentines."

According to local media reports, thousands of protesters had gathered in front of the presidential palace banging pots and pans, waving flags and holding signs denouncing the speech.

The demonstrations, which will hit the two-week mark Wednesday, target a new system of export taxes on soybeans and sunflowers that farmers say would bankrupt small- and medium-sized farms. The new system also slightly lowered taxes on wheat and corn exports.

Government officials counter that farmers have earned record profits as international commodity prices have soared over the past two years and can afford to pay the higher taxes. The new system raises taxes when prices rise and reduces them when prices fall.

The new taxes now claim 40 percent of revenue from soybean exports, according to the Argentine Agrarian Federation. Soybean production is booming and accounts for nearly 60 percent of all land used in Argentina for agriculture.

Manufactured farm products and raw materials, which include agricultural products, constituted 64 percent of the country's exports in January, according to government figures. Much of the country's farm products go to China, Europe and the United States.

"There's a threshold that's been crossed and expectations that haven't been met," said Argentine political analyst Felipe Noguera. "The farmers feel like they haven't been listened to, and it's fed into this outburst of anger."

Tensions have simmered since former President Nestor Kirchner began imposing export bans two years ago on some cuts of beef to control rising prices. Price controls and export bans on wheat and other products followed, further enraging farmers.

Kirchner's wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, became president in December promising to build a social pact among farmers, workers and other sectors to contain prices. Economists estimate inflation hit nearly 20 percent last year in Argentina, more than double the widely questioned official numbers.

Farmers, however, said Fernandez de Kirchner had unilaterally raised taxes instead of negotiating and that enough was enough. Nearly all of Argentina's soybean production is exported.

"The tariffs were the drop that overturned the entire glass," said Nicolas Bossio, a spokesman for the agrarian federation. "The government is doing this purposefully to concentrate everything in their hands and take away resources from the sector. They're not interested in dialogue."

Farmers said Tuesday that they would continue with the blockades and production strike until the government cancelled the tax hike but would send milk and other more perishable goods into the market.

Police have cleared a few of the road blockades, while truck drivers allied with the government have confronted some of the farmers on highways.

Government officials said they imposed the new tax to protect the domestic market from international price fluctuations as well as to contain the growth of soybean cultivation, which they said was crowding out other crops.

Speaking Tuesday night, Fernandez de Kirchner said the country had invested billions of dollars in irrigation, energy and other infrastructure benefiting farmers and therefore deserved to share in their growing profits.

She also accused farmers of paying their workers badly and refusing to share their riches with the rest of the country.

"Do we want to return to a country of a few or do we want a country with a better distribution of income, a more just country?" Fernandez de Kirchner asked.

Farmers at road blockades responded angrily to the speech and pledged to continue with the protests. Government officials have refused to negotiate with farmers until they stopped the strikes.

Opposition leader Elisa Carrio called Fernandez de Kirchner's words "the most violent speech I have ever heard" and said the president "and her husband are the only ones responsible for what's happening."

The protests effects have been felt in the capital of Buenos Aires, where 40 percent of butcher shops were closed Tuesday for lack of business and 90 percent of supermarkets also reported meat shortages, according to the nonprofit Consumer Education Center.

"I woke up at 3 a.m. today thinking about" how he would survive the shortages, said Daniel Ramondy, owner of a Buenos Aires butcher shop. "In 30 years, I have never experienced an impact this severe."

(Sreeharsha is a special correspondent for McClatchy, who reported from Buenos Aires. Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro.)