Farm fight gives Argentine newspapers plenty to chew on

March 23, 2009

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Argentine farmers’ decision to resume their anti-government protests dominated Sunday’s newspaper editorials, with some commentators saying the seemingly never-ending conflict over soy taxes risked spilling into political turmoil and even violence (Joaquin Morales Sola in right-leaning La Nacion).

Most agreed the conflict’s resurgence was down to last week’s surprise announcement by President Cristina Fernandez to share the soy tax revenue with the provinces, which critics see as an election ploy ahead of a mid-term vote due in June. Farmers took as proof she is unwilling to lower the levy.

Some columnists criticized the government for erratic policies that have stoked the conflict at a delicate time for the country (Eduardo van der Kooy, in top-selling daily Clarin), saying Fernandez needed to change tack to reflect the changed economic reality (Miguel Bonasso in Critica).

Argentine media are increasingly critical of the government and few defended the president’s handling of the standoff. Leftist daily Pagina 12, which generally supports Fernandez, echoed her own defense of the soy taxes as a vital tool to encourage more diversity in crops and redistribute wealth among the poor.

Here are some key extracts from the leading newspapers’ best-known columnists: 

Joaquin Morales Sola, right-leaning, pro-countryside La Nacion:

“Sometimes, violence is built slowly with words and gestures. Argentina is on its way there. The countryside has exploded, as was predictable, after the government’s latest assault on the farmers, who rightly realized the government hated them. Hate is always a precursor to violence, as are measures taken without consultation … There is a palpable and disturbing climate of hate emanating from those who govern and from the farm sector as well.

“If the government was willing to give up 30 percent of the soy export taxes, no one has explained why it wasn’t willing to give that money to the farmers. A reduction of that size in the export taxes would have instantly calmed down the farmers.

“Provincial leaders in the soy regions didn’t have time to celebrate the government announcement (to share soy tax revenue with the provinces) before they got wind of the rebellion on their doorsteps … violence isn’t far off.” 

Miguel Bonasso, a lawmaker who used to back the Kirchners but has since distanced himself from them, in Critica, an independent, center-left oriented daily:

“The last thing the government or society needs is to go back to the events of last March that caused the gaucho war.

“The state should impose taxes on exports, like it does on imports. The public sector should get a share of farming profits, as it should from mining or oil … but the burden should be fair and reasonable, according to different circumstances. The situation of small- and medium-sized farmers is not the same as the big sowing pools (alliances of investors who farm soybeans).

“Neither are the circumstances the same as they were last March. In the intervening period we have seen one of the worst droughts in history and a collapse in international commodities prices, including soy.”

Alfredo Zaiat, in leftist, pro-government Pagina 12:

“The privileged farming lobby of the Pampas, represented by four, landed groups that have lost their historical differences to redefine themselves as the Argentine Rural Soy Federation, wants to do away with export taxes, especially those on soy.

“The loss of fiscal income that would come from such a measure could not be immediately compensated elsewhere, so the resulting loss in revenue would have to come from debt.

“What the local branch of the multinational soy corporation want, with the blessing of the opposition, is to eliminate the soy export taxes and get a steep devaluation (of the peso). In this national championship, where no questions are asked, the leaders of the landholders and soy farmers never explain what this double whammy of devaluation and zero export taxes would mean for prices and people’s purchasing power.”

Eduardo van der Kooy, in top-selling daily Clarin, which has taken an anti-government line of late:

“Contradictions and confusion appear to be the only signals from the government in these grave times. Such behavior is leading the country to unbearable levels of social tension.

“They even mounted a fragile negotiating table with the farmers. But this week the dialogue went out the window (and) Cristina came out with a botched formula to share the soy export taxes with the provinces.

“With no room left for maneuver, the farm leaders had to launch (a new strike) … Cristina told the farm leaders the soy export taxes couldn’t be touched for fiscal reasons. She also said she wanted to avoid a “soy takeover” in the countryside. Two weeks later she announced she would give 30 percent of the soy tax revenue to the provinces, so the fiscal reasons weren’t so solid and the “soy takeover” even less so. From now on, will the provincial governors and mayors getting the profits from soy do anything to encourage farmers to grow corn and wheat?”

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