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Argentine farmers close roads, withhold food

Argentina's president on Monday urged striking farmers to end a 19-day national walkout after offering some concessions but refusing to roll back a disputed tax increase.
Argentina Farmbelt Rebellion
Farmers in Tandil, Argentina, set up a roadblock Monday using bales of hay. The farmers have been on strike since President Cristina Fernandez raised taxes on export crops.Pablo Aneli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Cristina Fernandez on Monday urged striking Argentine farmers to end a 19-day national walkout after offering some concessions but refusing to roll back a disputed tax increase that sparked the farmbelt rebellion.

Despite her nationally televised appeal, farm groups said the concessions were not enough and announced that they would continue the strike until at least until Wednesday. The walkout has emptied supermarket shelves of beef in this beef-loving nation. It also blocked key exports of soybeans, beef and wheat.

Fernandez told farmers she had no plans to roll back a new sliding scale of tax hikes on some farm exports, and joined Economy Minister Martin Lousteau in offering transport subsidies for distant farms and some new credit plans for dairy farmers, among other offers.

“In the name of all Argentines, I ask you once and for all ... let the trucks go through,” Fernandez said, appealing too the farmers. “We are here to talk. We are open to dialogue.”

Small farmers complain that they have been unfairly hit by a March 11 presidential decree that hiked export taxes on soybeans from 35 percent to as much as 45 percent, and slapped new duties on other farm exports.

Fernandez says the measure is intended to help stem rising inflation, which officially topped 9 percent last year despite independent projections it went above 15 percent.

Immediately after the speech, the leaders of the four major striking farm groups went on television and said they weren’t satisfied by the announcement. They added the strike would continue, urging the government to make bigger concessions.

“Truth told, we are worried,” said strike leader Eduardo Buzzi, adding the fact that the government refuses to budge on the tax increases showed a lack of “generosity” on the part of the country’s leadership.

He signaled farm leaders were eager to open negotiations, exhorting a solution this week if possible.

Mario Llambias, another farmer strike organizer, said 400 road blockades are continuing across a wide swath of Argentina from Salta in the far north to Rio Negro province in Patagonia at least for now.

“We continue to insist that the government doesn’t understand what is at the root of the problem,” Llambias said. “I believe the president is ill-advised” on farm policy.

A woman looks at empty shelves at a butcher shop in Buenos Aires, Monday, March 31, 2008. A farmers strike entered in the 19th day with nationwide roadblocks to prevent the transport of agricultural goods which is causing shortages of food all over the county. Roadblocks were briefly lifted Friday to facilitate negotiations, but were resumed after talks broke off Saturday, when the government appeared unwilling to meet farmers' demands to reverse the disputed tax hikes. Natacha Pisarenko / AP

Meanwhile, television footage showed farmers at rural blockades giving a “thumbs-down” moments after the president’s speech as they continued to block roadways with flaming tire barricades and barriers made of sharp metal spikes.

That came after strikers in the soybean- and cattle-rich province of Entre Rios, northeast of the capital, were forced to move their highway blockade at least once Monday as dozens of police fought to keep the corridor with Brazil and Uruguay open.

There was some pushing and shoving with riot police but farm leaders said blockades were continuing nationwide in several provinces despite official warnings they could detain protesters at the blockades to free up farm goods. So far, force hasn’t been used.

Meanwhile, supermarkets have run short of beef, chicken and produce since the start of the strike — President Cristina Fernandez’s biggest challenge since taking office Dec. 10.

Attempts to negotiate a settlement failed Saturday.