Farmers Strike in Argentina: Was it a Victory and Where Is the Left?

The four-month long farmers’ strike that at times paralyzed parts of the Argentine economy is over. The big question now is, who won, the right or the left. In most struggles this is not even a question, much less a complicated one. In Argentina, and for those around the world following this impressive struggle it is an active discussion and debate.

In March of 2008 the new president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez Kirschner, declared an increase in taxation for soy producers from a recent increase of 35% to now 45%. This resulted in an almost month long strike of farmers, using piquetes, road blockades, a tactic employed by those who do not have access to the traditional means of shutting down production in their workplace, such as strikes. Piquetes have been used mainly by the unemployed workers in Argentina, but are also used throughout the world to shut down major roads and bridges so that the movement of goods is stopped until demands are met. It has been a very effective tactic. In Argentina in March and April it was effective. The piquetes of farmers slowed and sometimes stopped the movement of goods from rural areas into cities, creating a noticeable lack of goods in stores. People began to talk of a food shortage and another crisis. In response, many people, including truck drives and middle class urban residents, went out into the streets to support the farmers’ demands of no tax increase. The Argentine government however still refused to budge on their position.

What the government did do was to attempt to shift the discussion away from what the farmers were demanding they needed to declare that the farmers were creating poverty in the cities and that the intended use of the government’s taxation was to alleviate poverty nationally. It is unclear if this was indeed the intended use of the increase in taxation. The president then went even further and compared the situation of extreme poverty that might be created, and the rise of the right wing in the country to the time period just before the military dictatorship. The government also mobilized its supporters to demonstrate in the streets against the farmers.

In Argentina over the past few months, the struggle of the farmers has been one that is seen and felt all over the country. It is a struggle that created heightened tensions and increased pressure on the government.

Finally, just last week, the government of Fernandez Kirschner was forced to stop the intended tax increase due to a vote by the national Senate repealing the law.

What does this mean for the farmers and the government? While the farmers have won a repeal of the tax increase, the question of who won in the broader sense, the left or the right, is still outstanding. I have spoken with many people in various groups and movements in Argentina and there is nothing close to a consensus.

The main questions at hand that are making the question of victory or defeat so cloudy are the economic and social position of the farmers and the governments stated intended use of funds gained from the increased taxation.

From what I have gathered through talking to people and doing research, the vast majority of farmers who went on strike and created road blockades throughout Argentina are small and medium size farmers. Their social position then, for the most part, is not that of mass landowners, but people who really do have a lot to loose, including their livelihood if higher taxation is implemented.

There are many farmers’ groups and associations in Argentina. The main groups involved in this most recent struggle are the Argentine Agrarian Federation (FAA), with more than 100,000 members owning small amounts of land, who many claim are the most militant, the Argentine Rural Confederation (CRA), with 100,000 medium-sized producer members, with farms ranging from 200 to 1,000 hectares, the Argentine Rural Society (SRA) with around 10,000 generally large land owner members, many of whom used to produce cattle and now produce soy, and the Agricultural Inter-Cooperative Confederation (CONINAGRO), an association with approximately 1,000 cooperatives.

Economist Daniel Lema, who studies the impact of technological change on rural areas, told the Inter Press Service News Agency (ipsnews.net) that from his studies, "Managing large areas of land is very complex. Medium-sized farms are more efficient. Large companies exist, but most farms continue to be small or medium in size."

"Small- and medium-sized farmers practically have to stop working because they’re working at a loss," said Alfredo de Angeli, a regional leader of the Argentine Agrarian Federation. (www.mcclatchydc.com/161/story/42502.html)

So, it seems that the struggle is one of smaller and medium size farmers. It is not the case that they are large landowners or multinational corporations. If this were the only question perhaps there would not have been so much debate and discord among groups that consider themselves on the left. However, there is still the second question. Did or is the government of Cristina Fernandez Kirschner intending to distribute wealth.

I believe that there was never more than a symbolic intention to distribute the tax money throughout the country. This is based on the brief historical record of Fernandez Kirschner as well as some of her politics and activities before becoming president. I believe she is a talented politician and is able to speak to both the right and the left. Before coming into office she played the role of both speaking with workers in recuperated factories, for example, and acting as though she would help them in their legal process, and even sometimes did. At the same time, she has also been involved in the process of the attempted eviction of recuperated workplaces. This to me is her politics. Convenience and popularity. Does she want to distribute wealth and for there to be less poverty? Perhaps. But pitting farmers against others in society is not the way to do this. That is a tactic used by someone who wants centralized power and control and knows that dividing people is one of the ways to help insure getting it. If there were a sincere interest in wealth distribution there would be discussions with Benetton and other multinational corporations who own massive expanses of land in Argentina and are not using it for anything “productive” for the Argentine society. If there were a serious desire to alleviate poverty, unemployed workers would not be expelled from empty land they are taking over so as to subsist. Those projects would instead be encouraged.

What I believe is the base of the argument of people who supported the government of Fernandez Kirschner and were against the farmers, while claiming to be on the left, is their desire for the Argentine government to be in the same place as that of Bolivia and Venezuela. It is not. Focusing on the State to make the changes you want to see in society is a dead end. Not only that, it alienates you from other sectors of society who you could possibly ally with, like in this case the farmers. I am not arguing that one does not place demands on the State, or refuses to engage with the State, but I am arguing that it needs to be done on our own terms, with our own time.  Siding with the State with the hopes that it might do something will never lead anywhere. Siding with other people in struggle, even if you have criticisms and disagreements has many possibilities for change and real popular power.

So, the farmers won, and much of the left is still deciding where they stand.

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