Argentina: Farm Strike Exposes Fernández’s Weak Flank

(IPS) – The conflict with the rural associations has highlighted political weaknesses of the new Argentine government of President Cristina Fernández and shown that economic recovery is necessary but not sufficient to remedy latent social tensions.

In a surprisingly virulent dispute, farmers opposed to an increase in taxes on farm exports blocked highways around the country for two weeks, keeping trucks with food supplies from delivering their cargo.

Middle-class demonstrators spontaneously took to the streets in Buenos Aires Thursday, banging pots and pans in solidarity with the farmers and to protest food shortages.

To complete the sense of déjà vu, in a flashback to the crisis that broke out in late 2001 when the government of Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001) was brought down amidst massive "cacerolazos" or pot-and-pan banging demonstrations, on Thursday shops and supermarkets were looted in suburbs of Buenos Aires and in the western province of Mendoza, where food shortages had begun to be felt.

On Friday, the rural associations agreed to temporarily call off the farm strike, to take part in talks with President Fernández, who said she would not negotiate until the traffic blockades were lifted. Talks will continue on Monday.

Fernández succeeded her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), in December.

How can a government that boasts of achieving economic growth averaging more than eight percent a year since 2003, which slashed unemployment and poverty rates, built up the foreign reserves and renegotiated the country’s crippling foreign debt, be brought to the edge of the abyss so quickly by a conflict with a single sector?

The president turned to gender for an explanation: "When I took office on Dec. 10, I said that because I am a woman, everything would be more difficult for me, and I wasn’t wrong," she said on Thursday before discussing key aspects of the conflict with the farmers.

But academics consulted by IPS said that the centre-left Fernández and Kirchner administrations have for too long neglected building a political base — a serious flaw that they said becomes evident at times of crisis and competition for scarce resources.

"This government believes that power is something to be accumulated, instead of using it as a tool to forge links between institutions. So, faced with a growing conflict, it has no support networks beyond a small group of people in the executive branch who take all the decisions," said political scientist Germán Pérez.

Pérez, who coordinates the Study Group on Social Protest and Collective Action (GEPSAC) at the Gino Germani Research Institute, which is part of the University of Buenos Aires, said "Kirchner had a historic opportunity to take steps towards political reform when he became president in 2003, but instead decided to build a narrow base by concentrating power, just as his Justicialista (Peronist) Party was built" in the mid-20th century.

Pérez said the decision that triggered the dispute with the farmers, the increase in grain export taxes, is a measure aimed at redistributing income, which also revived an overdue debate about the regulatory role of the state. But the way the government responded to the conflict was a mistake, he said.

"It was presented as a fight between the city and the countryside, or between the people and the ‘oligarchy’, and such concepts no longer appeal to Argentine society, which is much more diverse and plural than the government supposes. Party loyalties no longer call the tune," he said.

It would be better if the export tax increases were debated in Congress, where regional interests are represented, and social organisations have more opportunity to intervene, said Pérez. But that didn’t happen. The government launched the measure unilaterally, without consultation, and came up against more rejection than support.

Kirchner and Fernández’s lack of a grassroots support base was obvious over the past few days, when social movements coopted by the government and therefore no longer autonomous, and lacking legitimacy in the view of the public, took to the streets to defend the measures affecting farmers.

One of these was the Land and Housing Federation, led by Luis D’Elía, who is now a public employee.

"I am motivated only by visceral hatred of the f***ing oligarchy," D’Elía said on Thursday, after clashing on the streets with demonstrators protesting against the stance taken by the government in response to the farm strike. "I hate the whites in Recoleta (an upscale Buenos Aires neighbourhood) because they think we are trash, scum, and barbarians."

D’Elía stood behind the president on Thursday during her speech calling on farmers to call off their strike and participate in talks instead.

According to Maristella Svampa, who has a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in social sciences, "it’s very difficult to be progressive and find a place where one can express oneself" in the present context.

Those who support the tax increase on agricultural exports do not want to align themselves with D’Elía and his followers, or with other social movements that have lost autonomy.

People who support measures like the tax increase on windfall agricultural profits "have no channels to express this," and instead people are demonstrating against the authoritarianism of the government which they cannot tolerate, whatever their ideology, said Svampa, the author of "La sociedad excluyente. Argentina bajo el signo del liberalismo" (Exclusive Society: Argentina under Neoliberalism).

"The urban, progressive middle class had their expectations raised when Kirchner promised to build an all-inclusive centre-left movement, but it has been disappointed all these years," and now it no longer has political representation, she said.

Svampa said that the people banging pots and pans in the streets of Buenos Aires "were a heterogeneous group, and many didn’t know much about the farmers or the agricultural policy, but they have a culture of protest with a repertoire of reactions which they use to express discontent."

The repertoire includes cacerolazos, roadblocks, spontaneous demonstrations, protest marches and neighbourhood assemblies, which are triggered whenever there is a perceived need to put limits on a government, or express discontent and opposition.

"The president’s blindness created this backlash, but no government today can turn a deaf ear to the voices on the street," she said.