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Argentine farmers revive massive 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 — After more than a month of failed negotiations with government officials, thousands of farmers have re-created roadblocks and held back production all over this country to protest a controversial increase in agricultural export taxes.

The country's four main farm groups set up 150 roadblocks around Argentina on Thursday, blocking soybeans, rice and other grains from reaching markets. They also were refusing to release their own production of the grains.

While farm leaders said the strike would last only eight days, splinter groups took the protest further by blocking some major highways and promising to stay on the roads until Argentina's federal government lowered export taxes on soybeans and sunflowers.

Farmers balked in March when the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner hiked soybean export taxes from 35 percent to as high as 44 percent and also increased tariffs on sunflowers. Farm groups launched three weeks of road blockades and production stoppages, which caused shortages of meat and some vegetables at markets.

The two sides agreed to a 30-day truce to make way for negotiations, but the period, which was extended, ended Wednesday with no agreement on what to do about the export taxes. Farm leaders have promised that the new strike won't cut into general food supplies.

"Lots of people are very disturbed by how our leaders have mistreated us," said Nicolas Bocio, a spokesman with the Argentine Agrarian Federation. "The government has never changed any proposals they've offered us all this time. They just want to impose decisions on us, not negotiate."

Fernandez de Kirchner has said she imposed the tax to encourage farmers to grow crops other than soybeans, which she said takes up about half of the country's farmland but is consumed almost entirely outside Argentina.

She also has accused farmers of refusing to share record profits fueled by skyrocketing commodity prices and said they were holding Argentines hostage with their strike. Her harsh tone sparked spontaneous citizen protests throughout this nation of 40 million people in late-March.

The president repeated the defiant rhetoric Thursday, saying: "I have patience, and I am not going to defect from this fight that is all of Argentina's."

Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo called the renewed strike "a decision of enormous irresponsibility that doesn't make any sense, only the sense of defending very particular and sectorial interests above the general interest."

Argentina's economy is largely fueled by its farm sector, which makes up about 60 percent of the country's exports, and Fernandez de Kirchner has paid a high political price for taking on the industry.

Polls show her government's approval rating has fallen to as low as 33 percent, as Argentines feel the farm strike's effects, said political analyst Julio Burdman.

The president has responded by planning a giant rally May 25 to re-launch her faltering five-month-old government and announcing a "social pact" between unions and businesses to contain rising inflation.

"What these new protests mean is the conflict is going through a new cycle, and it's getting worse," Burdman said. "The probability of shortages and more clashes has also grown."

(Turner is a McClatchy special correspondent in Buenos Aires. Chang reports from Rio de Janeiro.)

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