Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Accidental Vegetarian: Argentina's Farm Strike

You won't see any slabs of beef on Argentine dinner tables this week. . . and maybe not for a while, if the farm strike continues. This could be good news to the vegetarian minority, but it looks like bad news overall.

Luckily, Roberto and I long ago cut back on the beef consumption, for our physical and financial health, so we will not miss the juicy steaks and chops for a while. But we are definitely concerned for farmers, including ourselves, and the country.

We're into Day 14 of a nationwide strike which has blocked major routes in soy and cattle country, including our nearby Pan American Highway linking Rosario, the grain capital, with Buenos Aires. The soybeans and cattle are staying put for now, in the fields or silos in the "interior" of the country, which is how the "portenos" of Buenos Aires refer to anything outside their urban enclave.

Frankly, it's getting a little too scary for me.

Tuesday evening President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner gave an angry speech, safely ensconced in a room of supporters (shades of G W Bush!) that provoked a spontaneous outpouring of multitudes of citizens to bang pots and pans in the plazas. Everyone knows this was just what happened before De la Rua was forced to resign from the Presidency for mishandling the economy.

But CFK or "Kristina," as you will, is not about to learn anything from history. Instead of seeking a dialogue, she is now digging herself in a deeper hole by threatening to remove these peaceful "piqueteros" by force and jail them, calling them "extortionists."


Then what do you call a President who, without consulting the farm sector in any way, allowed her Finance Minister Martin Lousteau to raise the export tax on soy to from 35 to 44% overnight! According to the Buenos Aires Herald, this represents an increase of 136% in revenues--and they will be controlled by the President without any input from the legislature. As farm exports, led by soy, accounted for 52% of the nation's foreign revenues, this is incredible.

Will we see violence? I worry. Her spokesperson claims not to know picketers intentions (!!!), but insists that they will not be allowed to block the roads illegally. The hypocrisy defies imagination, as the former President, Nestor Kirchner, allowed protestors to tie up Buenos Aires streets constantly. Meanwhile Argentinian environmentalists have blocked the international bridges for over a year to protest the construction of paper mills in Uruguay.

It terrifies me to live in a country where the goverment can decide to use its police or military force for political ends. How eerie that Cristina chose this week to show her dictatorial nature, as the public just observes its annual remembrance of the beginning of the last junta.

I'd like to be supportive of "CFK," Argentina's first elected woman President, but her divisive, authoritarian posture and makes it mighty hard. Earlier in the month the feds announced immediate price controls on beef, again without warning or dialogue. Her tough measures, she claims, are for the good of Argentina, though she panders to nationalism at the expense of its most important sector.

Since when are the only real Argentinians the urban consumers--who have no concept of what it takes to produce their food?

Does Cristina fancy herself the reincarnation of Evita as she describes soy producers as rich barons exploiting poor workers and the vulnerable public? That may be true for a few, but if you watch the Rural Channel or hang out in a country bar, you will discover the vast majority are small farmers who make a modest living, and whose costs are rising with the speeding inflation here--grossly underreported by the feds of course.

CFK and her curly-haired, 36-year-old Finance Minister claim this tax gouging is intended to discourage soy monoculture and promote greater production of foods for the Argentine table (where soy foods are notably absent). The beef price controls are to ensure affordable beef for all.

"Sounds like the Communists of my childhood," said my Romanian-American friend. It sure doesn't look like good economic planning to anyone with a lick of common sense.

If encouraging diverse production for domestic consumption is the goal, this is sure a dumb way to do it. With his Master's degree from the London School of Economics, why can't young Martin figure that out?

Does anyone imagine that Cristina use the new millions in her purse to foster a switch from soy to wheat? Or even better, to raise the standard of living for farm workers?

Or how about providing some support for those who grow wheat or rice or. . . strawberries? How about providing government assistance for crop disasters? Nope, here the agricultural sector supports an obviously ungrateful national government and urban sprawl.

As the wife of a small soy producer, I am both scared and outraged. And of course completely helpless. Unlike farmers in the First World, we do not get a penny of governement help and find it nearly impossible to procure even a small farm loan to expand our variety of crops. (Oh, are we surprised young Martin was President of the BA Provincial Bank, which of course has always preferred to help big industrialists and give the shaft to small businesses and farms?) There's no local Congress representative to call to give our point of view. We are without a voice.

Ojala that we were rich soy farmers! Not a chance. Todo el contrario!

We've gone into huge debt by trying to grow strawberries for the local market. We'll get no thanks from the goverment for creating a healthy product and more jobs. After two years of frosts and resulting bad harvests, we and other growers are desperate for capital. Decent profits from our one small soy field would enable us to pay off some of those loans and raise our own workers' salaries, for which CFK and her ilk spill alligator tears. I've never met one of the soy barons, which do exist. I just know ordinary people like us struggling every day to make ends meet.

Now we don't know what will happen with our imminent soy harvest. You can bet none of that soy tax is going to help folks like us! Nor will it go to farm workers or the services they need, e.g., hospitals and schools. Gee, where WILL all that money go?? To pay Peronist picketers, one wag informed me.

As a former resident of California and upstate New York, I am accustomed to respect for the needs of the farm sector and appreciation for their contribution to the nation. Here, the Peronists have fostered a city-country split for decades that has seen the rural areas stagnate economically while Buenos Aires prospers. Anyone tourist who ventures far from the tango dinner shows, funky Palermo discos, and the shopping in Barrio Norte will be transported back in time decades, even centuries. Public services, from education to sanitation, are shockingly abysmal.

Why is there so little investment in the interior? Why doesn't the steel industry, with its astronomical profits, get slapped with more taxes? What is really going on here in Argentina?

Decent profits that stay in the interior would mean that provincial governments could actually raise taxes and improve the infrastructure. Or heck, the feds could send more money back to the provinces from any source! I doubt that my U.S. readers can imagine that many of the main roads that connect the pueblos and small cities to the major highways are rutted dirt roads that are impassable in rain. Rural schools, if anyone cared, would be a national shame.

But Cristina, Martin and Nestor do not deign to speak to anyone who gets their hands dirty raising the cattle and crops that have made Argentina one of the major agricultural producers in the world. They didn't even send a representative to the major agricultural conference a year or so ago. "Just hand over your wallet" is their message to producers. And they don't lift a finger to help the rural poor who are useless as picketers for Peronist protests.

It is a dark day here, overcast, literally and figuratively. The only silver lining I see is that in kitchens across Argentina, housewives are developing their skills as vegetarian chefs, with more pasta, rice, potatoes, and veggies.

When Roberto and I sit down tonight to eat a risotto of lentils, peas, corn, and wheat, we will drink a toast to all of the valiant farm producers and supporters who finally found their voice.


Gideon said...

Dear Gayle,

I've been reading your blog off and on for a little over a year now, and I have to admit that I am always amazed at the radical differences between life here in the United States and Argentina. And unfortunately, it sounds like things there are not going to get better anytime soon.

Coming from an extended family that was involved in agriculture for hundreds of years, I have to say that it seems things are finally getting a little better for farmers here in New York. There is a bigger array of local foods in grocery stores and the NY Times (I believe) had an article a few weeks back about the growth of small organic farms within driving distance of NYC that are providing foods to the restaurants and farmer's markets there. And the local farmer's market, farm stores, and orchards here in the Capital Region are always packed. Now if you could only find a way to move your strawberry farm from Argentina to NY for a few months a year, you'd really be in the money :-)

Gideon Lamb

Jeff Bartlett said...

You stated:
"It terrifies me to live in a country where the goverment can decide to use its police or military force for political ends."

Unfortunately, as an American citizen you have lived in a country your entire life where this takes place. The only real difference is that the government in the USA uses it against other poeple, while here in Argentina they tend to use it against their own.

The real funny thing, with the poor people getting poorer throughout the world, is that Cristina received such bad press for a new policy that would have reduced national inflation and protected the people within Argentina from future food shortages. The entire issue is based off of the publics mis-trust of the government, no matter what they do.