After 101 days, four strikes, countless roadblocks, and many arrests, it seems that the conflict in Argentina over agriculture has finally come to a head. Today, the entire country—from coffee shops to taxis to grocers—tuned in to their radios and televisions with new fervor to hear President Cristina Kirchner address the nation on the issue. Her question, “What kind of country do we want?” rings out, raising serious questions in light of the continuing conflict. Soon, congress will determine the answer to this question while deciding the fate of the tax increase on agricultural exports that is the driving force behind this controversy.
President Kirchner’s question underscores the importance that the resolution to this conflict will have for Argentina and the rest of the world. However, a meaningful solution will have to satisfy all three factions of this fight—the farmers, the government, and the people. As each group holds protests and publishes propaganda, it seems that now is the time serious introspection.
In January 2008, President Kirchner captured the presidency in a landslide victory. She had a 70 percent approval rate upon entering La Casa Rosada (Argentina’s White House) and appeared to have an easy term ahead of her. In spite of this support, Mrs. Kirchner’s response to this conflict has left Argentines questioning not only her policies but also her ability to govern. La Presidenta, as she is called here, had planned to continue the political ideology of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who preceded her as President.
Both Kirchners espouse the idea popularized by Peron in the 1950s: to use the revenue from agricultural taxes to industrialize the country and to alleviate poverty. Mrs. Kirchner championed the creed during her campaign, primarily because the principle had successfully helped Peron to industrialize Argentina in the 1950s and helped her husband to revitalize the country after the 2001 financial crisis.
In early March of 2008 the Argentine government, under the leadership of Mrs. Kirchner, raised taxes on agricultural exports from 35 percent to 45 percent. Her party felt they could use the extra revenue to curb rapidly rising inflation and help the poor. However, hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country quickly responded with anger to what they called an unconstitutional tax. Cristina’s dream of an easy four years was gone, and the tensions with the agricultural interior were just beginning.
The Interior, The Government, and The People
The first strike, targeting Buenos Aires, lasted 21 days. A few dozen ruralistas, men from the rural provinces, armed with chains of large metal spikes, blocked main highways and effectively halted all transport of meat, cheese, eggs, and dairy into the city. After the first week, meat disappeared from grocers’ shelves. The few remaining stores with meat hiked up prices that only the most affluent could afford. Despite the extortion, these products disappeared within days.
The fallout was undeniable: porteños, the residents of Buenos Aires, realized the power of the campo. Argentina strictly limits its imports to products it can’t produce: most notably machinery, motor vehicles, and oil. The country has relied on its own fields to feed the population, a task that had been easily completed for decades. The strike in early March, and the resulting food shortages in Buenos Aires, revealed a flaw in the import policy: to function properly, the agriculture sector must be on board. If they aren’t, the whole system may self-destruct.
After three weeks, the ruralistas ended the strike fearing that the urban population would turn against the movement and hoping to initiate negotiations with the government over the new tax rates. Since March, though, the ruralistas have had three additional strikes, again blocking major trucking routes and refusing to export their goods (after the first strike, they have not blocked food to Buenos Aires). Each of these strikes has been in response to critical government actions, most recently, to speak out against government-sponsored repression at a roadblock last week.
Argentina is the second largest exporter of corn and the third largest exporter of soybeans in the world. Over half of the nation’s export earnings come from agriculture. The strikes are both symbolic and opportunistic. While they demonstrate the dependency of the rest of the country on the campo, the strikes are also the only bargaining power ruralistas have. The Argentine government, however, has refused to negotiate with the ruralistas if they strike. For this reason, none of the strikes has lasted for more than a few weeks. Thus far, the strikes have only been used as threats by the ruralistas, enacted when they are angered or feel threatened by the government. It seems likely that until the ruralistas carry out a protracted, continuous strike, stopping all exports, the government will continue to have the upper hand and resolution will remain elusive.
The government has remained decidedly distant from actually involving itself outright in the conflict. Nestor Kirchner claimed a few weeks ago that the “government governs, not mediates.” Rather, they work through the Justice Department, the courts, the police, and the media. With no one to pin their frustrations on directly, the ruralistas are left somewhat demoralized. Their message has become increasingly inflexible and their actions more visible as they feel more and more disenfranchised.
Underscoring this entire conflict is the campo’s desire for acknowledgment, a simple “thank you” for the work they do for their country. In fact, only a few weeks ago, this call for gratitude was their major demand. Argentines are a naturally proud people, and this situation is complicated by the fact that the reputation of hundreds of thousands of farmers are the on the line. Moreover, the government has manipulated the conflict so that only one party—either the government or the campo—can emerge victorious. Their rhetoric has infiltrated the media and for many weeks the bylines of the newspapers read “El Gobierno vs. El Campo” (The Government vs. The Farmland). In effect, the government has created a battle out of what should be a discussion.
The Argentine government has countered every rural protest with its own pro-government demonstrations. In the city of Buenos Aires, this has played out between the Obelisco and the Plaza de Mayo—two of the city’s focal points. Several times, opposing protestors have marched on the Obelisco, creating extremely tense, often violent, and sometimes bloody encounters. In the rural interior, the Argentine Gendarmería is the acting representative of the government.
These men, armored in riot gear with clubs, and shields, were sent last week to one rural area to dislodge a roadblock and the protestors supporting it. They approached the group, shoulder to shoulder, and arrested 20 men. One of them was Alfredo de Angeli, the president of the Entre Ríos chapter of the Argentine Agrarian Federation. The ruralistas view the Gendarmes as an extension of the Casa Rosada. Attacking them is a way to vent their frustrations and growing anger. And the government is naïve in thinking that sending the Gendarmes to break up protestors could either transpire without violence or bring either party any closer to reaching an agreement.
Immediately following the arrest of Angeli, more than 100 roadblocks were enacted and the strikes reinstituted. As violence escalates and the conflict becomes more physical, a quick resolution seems improbable. As Angeli promised upon being released, “This Government is not going to pacify us. Our protest will continue.”
Caught in the opposing forces of the government and the campo, the city dwellers of Buenos Aires have refused to determine the winner. Ricardo Kirschbaum, the editor-in-chief of Clarín one of the country’s leading newspapers, explains, “Public opinion, while it is not with the farmers’ protest, is far from the Casa Rosada.” To many, the conflict is confusing. Others have a lingering feeling of disinterest with the process; is there really a chance for the campo’s demands to be heard?
For three months now, the people of Buenos Aires have sporadically though forcefully taken to the streets, expressing their feelings either pro or anti government through cacerolazos, or coordinated, energetic banging of pots and pans, supported by car horns, bells, and other noisemakers. Thousands of porteños have protested in this manner but with very few results. It’s impossible for the government not to hear the tens of thousands of banging pots around the city—in the streets, from terraces, balconies, and open windows—but so far they are refusing to listen.
The discussion of agricultural production, taxation, and export is becomingly increasingly critical in the rapidly urbanizing world of Latin America. Latin America is urbanizing faster than any other developing region in the world, and the issue of food production and transport from rural areas into cities is of the utmost importance, as Argentina has learned in the past three months. Mrs. Kirchner’s question, “What kind of country do we want?” is less a question of choice and more a testimony to modern realities.
In this country of 40 million people, more than 13 million live in the mammoth urban center of Buenos Aires. Though it is considered the cultural center of Argentina, Buenos Aires is totally dependent on the rural areas for food. While Argentina prides itself on growing the majority of food consumed within her borders, this system, unless it is fully supported by the campo, is risky. Though Argentina has come to be viewed as one of the more “stable” countries in Latin America, its politics, especially concerning the urban-rural divide, are precarious. Continued problems may prompt city dwellers to consider the benefits of urban agriculture, an idea that is gaining traction throughout the world but remains largely unknown in Argentina.
The validity of the export taxes is now in the hands of Argentina’s Congress. However, this body is dominated by Kirchneristas, the Peronist party. Already, ruralistas have expressed doubt at the fairness of such a process, especially when the decision is intended to set a precedent. But, in this case, the disorder of the Argentine political process, will work to the ruralistas advantage: if Congress does not vote in favor of the campo, the international community will be sure to hear from the ruralistas again.