28 de marzo 2008 - 00:00

Argentine leader urges farmers to lift strike

Cristina de Kirchner
Cristina de Kirchner
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez urged farmers on Thursday to call off a strike and start talks to end two weeks of protests that have paralyzed exports and left meat counters bare.

Fernandez is under mounting pressure to resolve the strike, which has seen middle-class Argentines protesting in the cities to support the farmers in scenes reminiscent of the political crisis that rocked the country in 2001-2002.

The center-left president struck a defiant tone in a speech to supporters, saying the strike amounted to extortion and would have to be called off before negotiations could begin. But she also urged farmers to make that happen.

"The government's doors are open but please, lift this strike for the sake of the people," she said, defending the taxes on soy exports that triggered the protest as a way to share the spoils of soaring global grains prices with Argentina's poor.

A more strident speech by the president earlier this week inspired farmers to dig in their heels with the protests, but the immediate response from some strike leaders on Thursday appeared more receptive.

"This is a call to good sense, it's a call for negotiations in a tone very well suited to calm this situation. In my opinion, this opens the dialogue," said Hugo Biolcati, vice president of the Argentine Rural Society, one of the farm groups leading the strike.

Strike leaders will announce a decision on whether to lift their protest early on Friday, said Nestor Roulet, vice president of the CRA farming association.

However, at several road blocks across the country, farmers vowed to stay put.

"The fight goes on, I think we have to carry on and not ease up," said Alfredo de Angelis, an Agrarian Federation leader in Entre Rios province.

HALTING EXPORTS

By holding products back from market, the farmers have halted grain exports from Argentina, an agricultural powerhouse, and affected soy buyers in Europe and China.

Groups of small and large farmers maintained their road blocks on key rural highways on Thursday and held marches and protests in cities throughout the grain-growing heartland.

Even if strike leaders decide to suspend the strike when they meet on Friday, it is not clear if farmers manning the roadblocks will pull them down because many are furious at the government over the tax hike.

Some restaurants and stores were running low on beef, chicken and dairy products.

"We're not offering meat since yesterday because we ran out of our small reserve," said Roberto, a waiter at a restaurant-bar in downtown Buenos Aires.

Middle-class protesters banged pots and pans in the streets of the capital for the third night running on Thursday to support the strikers, although in smaller numbers.

The demonstrations have prompted comparisons to pan-banging protests that ousted a president in 2001.

The farmers are protesting a new sliding-scale tax, which would replace a fixed tax and make levies on soy exports significantly higher at current prices. They say the higher tax would harm smaller farmers.

But they are also expressing frustration with Fernandez' authoritarian style of decreeing policy. Fernandez and her husband, ex-President Nestor Kirchner, have angered farmers with export bans and price controls on their products, aimed at taming inflation and boosting government revenue.

"Beyond the economic issues, what's at stake is the dignity of growers," said Jose Apestaguia, a rancher and grain grower in the agricultural town of Pergamino.

The government earlier this week warned it would use force to break up barricades on highways, but Fernandez made no such threat on Thursday.

Ironically, Argentina has been one of the main beneficiaries of a global surge in commodities prices and the economy has been booming for five years, rebounding from a deep crisis in 2001-2002.

The standoff illustrates the country's deep disagreement over how to spread around the windfall profit -- Argentina's soy receipts totaled $13.47 billion last year.

Fernandez says farmers are getting wealthy off cheap labor and subsidized fuel, and argues the higher export taxes on soy and other products will help the 25 percent of Argentines who are poor.

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