Argentine Farmers Suspend Strike


GUALEGUAYCHU, Argentina (AP) -- Argentine farmers rebelling over soaring export taxes on their crops on Wednesday suspended a three-week-long strike that has stripped grocery shelves of beef and produce, granting Cristina Fernandez a reprieve in the first major crisis of her presidency.

But the farmers, who claim that high taxes are eating away at their profits to the point that they can't make a living, warned they will resume highway blockades in 30 days if the center-left government doesn't negotiate concessions.

Nearly 20,000 farmers and ranchers in broad-brimmed cowboy hats and faded baseball caps cheered as leaders of Argentina's four main farm groups announced a temporary halt to the strike, the longest farm walkout in Argentina's history. They called on government to provide negotiators who understand the countryside.

"We are suspending this strike but no more than 30 days!" farm leader Mario Llambias shouted from atop a flatbed truck as farmers chanted "Argentina! Argentina!"

The strike was set off by an increase in soybean taxes from 35 percent to as much as 45 percent and new duties on other farm exports.

Fernandez, who took office in December, says the taxes are key to her model for sharing some of the farm sector's big gains with those less fortunate - particularly the quarter of the country's 40 million people who are still mired in poverty after the 2002 economic meltdown.

Argentina has enjoyed five consecutive years of growth above 8 percent, powered in large part by farm tax export windfalls as commodity prices have soared. Fernandez's husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, applied restrictions on 2006 beef exports as part of wider controls to hold down double-digit inflation.

But the steps infuriated farmers, who set up barricades on highways across Argentina.

The strike caused painful food shortages and emptied market shelves of beef in a country with some of the biggest cattle herds and meat consumption worldwide.

Juan Ferreya, a butcher who runs a shop in a Buenos Aires suburb, normally spends his morning slicing whole sides of beef into thick steaks.

"I've gone six days without receiving any meat shipments," he said, wringing his hands as he stared down into empty freezers.

Fabian Moine, a 43-year-old farmer who runs cattle and soybeans on a small farm in Entre Rios, said that high taxes, coupled with the high costs for planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting soybeans, leave him only a tiny profit.

"Now they say they want to take up to 45 percent of the revenue," Moine complained.

On Wednesday, strikers across Argentina dismantled barricades of metal spikes and pulled tractors blocking highways after a 21-day strike.

Between capital and countryside, the strike highlighted clashing visions over how to divide the spoils of one of world's most fertile farmbelts, a rolling pampas that has made Argentina one of the leading exporters of beef, soybeans and wheat.

Argentina's central bank reported a record $50 billion in reserves last month when the strike began. Kirchner used the reserves in 2005 to pay off nearly $9 billion in debt owed the International Monetary Fund.

Strike leader Eduardo Buzzi charged that the government paid off the IMF early thanks to farmers, who now deserve to keep more of their profits. He said the current administration is now trying to use farm profits to pay off about $6 billion still owed creditor nations.

"The farm has said enough!" he said.

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