The agricultural producers of Argentina are on strike since last Sunday, and boy, the spits of venom are flying all over us. Minister Miceli gave a press conference calling the strike "ideological and political", and dismissed the claims of the producers regarding their contribution to the wellbeing of the country. The government has been intervening in (some would say interfering with) the beef market and, to a lesser extent, with the wheat-flour-bread markets, in order to keep prices from rising; and of course there are the retenciones, or export taxes, in place since the economic crisis exploded.
The economic juggling act is as follows:
- Exporters take advantage of the high exchange rate (over 3 pesos/dollar) to sell at internationally competitive prices and gather a good profit. The ones most benefitted by this exchange rate are the agricultural producers.
- The Central Bank sucks up the incoming dollars, keeping the exchange rate artificially high (over 3 pesos/dollar), so as to maintain the competitiveness of the exporters.
- The government taxes exports, differently according to what exactly is being exported (some things are not taxed, others are taxed 20%). This is how it gets a sizable part of the total tax revenue.
- The very success of the above strategy places it in danger, since the more competitive exports are, the more dollars enter the local market, thus pushing down the exchange rate.
- Not only that, but the Central Bank has to emit pesos in order to buy dollars. This effectively devalues the peso and expands the monetary base, indirectly fueling inflation.
The agricultural sector in Argentina, as a whole, has no reason to complain about profits. During the 1990s, when the exchange rate was fixed at 1:1, many invested in imported machines and increased their productivity, but then they went broke as their exports were uncompetitive. Now they have a government that keeps the exchange rate high for them, making it prohibitively expensive for most of us to get certain imported goods, but they still complain.
One of the points of contention is the government doesn't have a plan for the agricultural sector and doesn't help the smaller producers, who are being bought up by their larger fellows. Indeed, the soybean boom has created a depressing landscape in which a few hundred landowners with huge plantations employ sophisticated machinery and very few people to plant any available patch of dirt over millions of hectares with a transgenic monoculture, then to harvest it and sell it to China (mostly), while producers of less-favoured crops (including many regional specialties in the poorer parts of the country) are struggling to keep up, and falling back.
For some reason, the conservative wealthy elite of the countryside have managed to present this strike as a just cause, as the fight of the economic saviours of the country for a free, undistorted market. The truth, of course, is that if they had their way, the national budget would run a huge deficit and we'd be having milk, bread and beef at three times the current price -- those of us who could afford them, and even then, only as much as the producers did not manage to sell abroad (the EU, for example, buys quality Argentine beef at a very good price, but only a small fixed quota; and both the EU and the US burden their imports with tariffs and regulations to protect their own producers). The controversial Secretary of Internal Commerce, Guillermo Moreno (the price control czar, so to speak, of the Argentine government) put it bluntly: "We can't have food at international prices."
The last cause of anger for the countryside folks was the announced decission of the government to employ force should the roads be blocked by the strikers to prevent the traffic of grain and cattle from their sources to the markets (a threat the strikers have already made -- and they already blocked the Rosario-Buenos Aires Highway for a while). The opposition pounced on it, calling it a double standard (which it is), since the government refuses to clear the road blocks set up by the piqueteros in Buenos Aires and by the pulp mill protestors on the roads before the international bridges linking Argentina and Uruguay, which are arguably causing as much trouble, though of a different kind.
This certainly looks like it will be a rough year's end.