Argentine farmers end three-week strike

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 — Thousands of farmers on Wednesday lifted a three-week strike that produced food shortages at markets throughout this 40 million-person country and represented the biggest challenge so far to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

The farmers didn't achieve their main goal, killing a March 11 increase in export taxes on soybeans and sunflowers, but they said they would wait at most 30 days for negotiations with the government to move forward.

Speaking at a rally in the central Argentine city of Gualeguaychu, a spokesman for the country's four main farm associations said farmers would go back to blocking roads and withholding their production if negotiations failed.

Such measures have stopped tons of meat, fruit and other food from reaching markets, especially in the capital of Buenos Aires. Farmers had begun lifting roadblocks throughout the country Wednesday morning.

Farmers have criticized what they said are crippling price freezes, export bans and tax hikes that the government implemented. The moves have targeted the country's powerful farm sector, which produces about 60 percent of Argentina's exports.

"We are not offering a truce," said Alfredo de Angelis, leader of the Agriculture Federation of the province of Entre Rios. "We are offering a pause on this road we're on."

Fernandez de Kirchner has responded that too many farmers are producing soybeans, almost all of which is exported, and aren't sharing their record profits with the rest of the country. About half of farmland in Argentina is devoted to soybean production, and the country is the world's third-biggest soybean exporter.

Saying it wanted to promote other crops, the government implemented a sliding scale on soybean export taxes that effectively raised tariffs from 35 percent to 44 percent. The export tax is now about 40 percent, farmers said. The government also slightly lowered export taxes on corn and wheat.

Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters Tuesday in front of the presidential palace, Fernandez de Kirchner depicted the strike as an attack by prosperous farmers on everyday Argentines and her four-month-old government.

"I have never seen in such little time so many attacks on a government rising from the popular vote, never so many offenses, never so many insults," Fernandez de Kirchner said.

Buenos Aires resident Laura Rama said she was relieved the strike was off and hoped both sides would start talking again. Eating more beef per capita than people in any other country, Argentines have especially been irked by meat shortages caused by the strike.

"This was a very strong, forceful protest, and I would prefer to see more dialogue instead of street protests and roadblocks," Rama said. "This way of negotiating is not helpful."

Political analysts said the president erred on March 25 when she accused the farmers of trying to extort the government and mistreating their workers. That prompted the farmers to extend their strike indefinitely and sparked widespread marches by thousands of everyday Argentines who were upset over the president's rhetoric.

Fernandez de Kirchner then adopted a more conciliatory tone, but she refused to negotiate while the roadblocks blocked trucks from transporting food. Farmers lifted the strike Friday afternoon but remounted their roadblocks Saturday after negotiations fell apart.

On Monday, Fernandez de Kirchner announced new measures — including tax rebates and transport credits — that would compensate some 62,000 small farms for losses suffered due to the hike in export taxes.

With stores and other businesses in cities starting to feel the damage, farmers were paying growing political costs for the strike and ultimately gave in, said analyst Carlos Fara. The long-divided farming sector, however, has emerged united and will enter negotiations with the government strengthened, Fara said.

"This government at least managed to contain the damage that last week's speech produced," Fara said. "Now the government will have to be more careful with the farmers."

(Turner is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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