26 March 2008

I'm with the farmers, or, see what happens while I'm away

Marisa and I came back from our Easter weekend vacations today. It all went terrific, except the countryside was burning (figuratively) while we were away, and reality eventually caught up with us when we headed back for Rosario. As you must know, agricultural producers are on strike because of the latest increase of the export taxes.

What's happening now is more important than the story of my vacations, so I'll put that off for today and begin by the end. We left Córdoba City on schedule, at 01:30 PM, with only a bit of concern for what we heard on TV about the road blockades put up by the farmers on strike. We headed southeast along the highway and National Route 9, and around 03:00 PM we were stopped near a town called Oliva. Farmers had blocked the way with harvesters and only a trickle of vehicles was allowed through.

Piquete del campo (by pablodf)

We were cleared a few minutes later, and thought it was going to alright from then on. One hour later we arrived in Villa María, our first major stop. The driver got off and announced "We're stopping here for fifteen minutes!" so everybody could get off the bus, stretch their legs, go to the toilet, or whatever. We stayed beside the bus and waited. Twenty-five minutes later the driver came back and told us, "We're not moving from here until further notice." There was a road block that wouldn't allow anybody through, and several buses were held on the road already. Moreover, there seemed to be some tension developing between the farmers and the drivers of the cargo trucks detained by the block. It seemed safer to stay in the bus terminal, where we had basic facilities, rather than in the middle of nowhere outside town.

Varados en Villa María (by pablodf)

Some time afterward, someone said the president was going to give a speech on national TV, hopefully to untangle the mess, put forward some promise, some ideas for compromise, some hint of appeasement that could bring the farmers to dialogue. We waited.

Esperando el discurso (by pablodf)

Sure enough, at about 06:20 PM Presidenta Cristina K appeared. What followed was both the finest piece of oratory and the crappiest piece of diplomacy I'd ever seen. After angering the farmers, then going away on vacation as if nothing happened, she re-appeared and dumped this load of senseless vitriol on them. No sense of humility, no intention to fix the trouble, appease or compromise, no change at all from the standard Kirchnerist babble — self-exaltation of their achievements, denial of their faults, offensive defense, confrontation. What you could expect from an activist, an ideologue, or a legislator defending her party line — certainly not from a president of a country where major roads of the most populated and most productive provinces are being blocked by protesters.

Cristina was surrounded by the usual host of cronies and opportunists, including the governors of two provinces. The ones most involved, however, were not present: Schiaretti of Córdoba and Binner of Santa Fe. Schiaretti, a fervorous Kirchnerist, was being pressed by the local authorities of all the municipalities in the province, some of then openly in favour of the strike. And Binner, a Socialist, had already, if cautiously, established Santa Fe's official stance beside the farmers.

The question is not whether the farmers earn enough, not enough, or too much (whatever that means) . The question is: we produce a lot, the federal government takes a big chunk of it, and none of that money returns. It's used to finance federal spending, a lot of which goes to pay for pseudo-welfare: piquetero organizations affiliated with the government, who serve as shock troops and political meeting filler as appropriate.

Back to Villa María... After Cristina's speech people were extremely upset. I'd let my parents know I was going to be late; now I text-messaged them again, and also my co-workers, since I was supposed to be back at the office at 7 AM the next day. The General Urquiza bus company was a model of bad PR — the drivers didn't notify us properly on their intended course of action, and nobody offered to buy us all a meal, which was the least they could do. So we had something to eat on our own, and got on the bus again.

Other passengers came telling there was a demonstration and cacerolazo in Buenos Aires, and soon we learned the protest had spread. Thousands of people were banging pots and pans and honking their horns in Rosario near the Flag Memorial, and people other than farmers were joining the strike and the protests in Entre Ríos, La Rioja, Mendoza, and even Santa Cruz. The north of Córdoba was practically isolated by multiple road blocks. A group of demonstrators had come close to clashing with Gendarmería at the Hernandarias Tunnel below the Paraná River (between Santa Fe City and Paraná, Entre Ríos).

At the same time we heard of the Kirchnerist piqueteros in Buenos Aires, led by Luis D'Elía, violently assaulting and driving back the peaceful demonstrators at Plaza de Mayo, and a similar incident in Rosario involving a Kirchnerist movement called Libres del Sur. Although they claimed they went there on their own, it's obvious they were sent by the government, which now says they'll use force to remove the pickets if necessary.

In the 1950s, President Juan Domingo Perón co-opted the large unions, organized a corporatist model with control of the heavy industries, attacked the dissident press and the "oligarchy" of the old countryside landowners, and allowed the extreme factions of his multi-faced Justicialist movement to turn into militias, which could be put to use as needed. To this day historians hesitate whether to call this fascism, but we know Perón brought those ideas in after a visit to Mussolini's Italy. The Kirchners have been revisiting that sad story all this time. They haven't managed to silence the press or lead intellectuals into exile, like 20th century Peronism did. But we now know for sure that plain citizens won't be allowed to demonstrate peacefully against government policies in the large cities — not as long as busloads of indoctrinated lumpen and paid-for thugs can be brought in to dissuade them. The Kirchners don't tolerate dissent — you must like them and love them no matter what, or you become automatically the Enemy.

I stayed in the bus listening to the radio, feeling rather gloomy about the general state of the country, and fell asleep late. I woke up a couple of times to false alarms. We left at 7:15 AM, as the first light of dawn appeared.

We had an uneventful trip. I slept on and off, and took pictures of the passing countryside landscape. It all seemed so peaceful! There were no pickets anywhere else, though occasionally you could see traffic stations full of trucks, and other trucks along the sides of the road. As we entered the last part of the highway, somebody volunteered music for the drivers to put on the bus speakers. Some people cheered as we arrived at the bus terminal, at 11:30, almost 22 hours after leaving Córdoba.

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