Farmers’ protests pose challenge to Argentina’s new president

Farmers’ protests pose challenge to Argentina’s new president

Alberto Fernández seeks to bolster state coffers with tax raid on country’s most powerful industry

 

A torrential downpour could not extinguish the anger of the determined group of Argentine farmers who gathered last week outside an agricultural fair to vent their fury after the government raised taxes on their exports.

“What the president said was nasty . . . they’re lying,” raged Ariel Plá, one of the protesters from Córdoba province, as he stood in the rain surrounded by rusting tractors, from which hung banners proclaiming: “We go bust while the state spends” and “We produce food, politicians produce poverty”.

He was referring to President Alberto Fernández’s claim that farmers had accepted a 3 percentage point rise in the country’s soy export tax to 33 per cent, just a few months after he lifted the levy from 25 per cent — a comment that sparked last week’s protest about 150 miles from Buenos Aires. Now the farmers are threatening to drive their tractors to the capital to ram home their point.

The ire of Argentina’s most powerful economic force is an early challenge to the new president, who took power in December.

Under pressure to revitalise an economy in its third year of recession and to stave off another sovereign debt default, Mr Fernandez’s gaze has turned to the country’s most successful exporters, as he seeks to bolster the state’s coffers. 

The agribusiness sector in Argentina, the world’s largest exporter of soyabean oil and meal, represents about 10 per cent of its economy, and provides almost two-thirds of the $60bn in export revenues.

That has spurred investment in the kinds of innovation on display at the Expoagro fair, where last week’s protest took place, such as the prototype of a heli-drone capable of precision crop spraying and aerial mapping.

This is a world away from the traditional gauchos, the Argentine version of cowboys, revered in national tradition. 

Since the export levy was implemented in the wake of Argentina’s 2001 default, the farmers have paid in a total of $170bn. But Carlos Favarón, a farmer who had travelled to the protest from Chaco province, said this money had been squandered, given that poverty levels have only risen. “Farmers are willing to show solidarity, but that means doing so voluntarily, not with a gun to our heads,” he said.

He also noted the roughly 82,000 “disappeared” farmers who have been forced out of business, a blunt reference to those killed, or “disappeared”, during Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. 

The tensions have revived memories of the 2008 dispute between the government and the farmers that resulted in a humiliating defeat for then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now the vice-president. The dispute, which brought farmers into downtown Buenos Aires before the protest descended into violent clashes with government supporters, led to the resignation of Mr Fernández, who was then the cabinet chief. 

Aside from many of the same cast of characters, the conflict a dozen years ago also began just three months after a new government attempted to increase the export tax. 

But the farming lobby today is less united than it was then, with some willing to work with the government. Nor does it have the same level of public support.

Mr Fernández is enjoying a honeymoon period as president, while in 2008 Ms Fernández de Kirchner was already seen as a continuation of the presidency of her husband Néstor Kirchner, whose 2003-07 government alienated many Argentines. 

The coronavirus outbreak could also work in his favour in the short-term by limiting farmers’ ability to protest. The government last week banned all gatherings of more than 200 people in an effort to control the spread of the virus.

Yet Mr Fernández’s centre-left administration is also divided, between the moderates and a radical wing led by Ms Fernández de Kirchner, who is no relation. 

Felipe Noguera, a political consultant who advised the farmers in the 2008 dispute, said Mr Fernández was using “an external conflict to solve internal disagreements” in his government, because many view the farmers as wealthy landowners. He was confronting them “to assert authority in his struggle to become a strong president”, Mr Noguera added. 

Attacking the supposedly rich plays well with radicals such as Juan Grabois, an influential activist who believes a huge swath of land should be expropriated to feed the country’s poor.

“Soy is a commodity, it’s not food. We have a problem if we can export 400m tonnes of soy but we can’t provide food for 5m poor people,” he said. Argentine soyabean meal is sold to countries including China as animal feed.

Mr Noguera, however, warns against underestimating the farmers, who be believes will eventually unite.

“I’m not so sure about Fernández, though, as he is fighting on so many different fronts,” he added. Just four months into his presidency, the president is in dispute with the Catholic church over his plans to legalise abortion; with judges over his attempts to reform the judiciary; and with investors who fret over potentially acrimonious debt restructuring negotiations. 

Bernardo Basombrío, author of a book on the 2008 conflict, said: “If you insult farmers, they are going to come out in full force — and the government is provoking them on purpose for ideological reasons. The situation is explosive.”

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