Monday, April 14, 2008

Argentina's "Farmers" Are Not Exactly Old MacDonald

Despite a 30-day "truce" in their "strike" involving roadblocks around the country, the "farmers" of Argentina have decided not to deny their fellow-citizens their daily beef -- not that they've ceased airing their own absurd and unpalatable beefs. Witness an open letter to President Cristina Fernández de Kirschner being circulated on the Internet by the daughter of one such "farmer."

In part, one Victoria Guazzone di Passalacqua, 22, from the town of Azul, province of Buenos Aires (about 150 miles south of the nation's capital, Buenos Aires), writes the following:
I am the daughter of an agricultural producer who has worked like a horse all his on the countryside. I am a daughter of a father who, to this day, rises every morning at 6 to be the first to go and talk to the peons working in the paddocks. I am a daughter of a father who had to go and live in Azul to be able to give my brothers and me life he wanted for us. I am a daughter of a producer who lost 75% of his crop to the storms last year. I am a daughter of a producer who had to give half the remaining 25% to the government and use the other half deal to pay taxes, in addition to fending for his family's decent living. Despite all this, I am as daughter of the land like any Argentine.

I did not live under the military governments that sickened our country in the 1970s. I do not have missing relatives nor do I have military men in my escutcheon. But I understand that yesterday [reference to a speech by the president, date unknown], instead of continuing to perpetuate the ideological conflicts into which our country plunged more than 30 years ago, it might have been better take inventory of the situation and appease the spirits of everyone. In a history book I once read that "if there is no balance on all the parties involved in a particular chapter of history, justice will be read as revenge" Don't you think, Madam President, that it might be time for you to honor the whip with which you rule on behalf of the interests of all of us and to stop dividing the country into the pitiful dichotomy of the oligarchy and the people?
Only in the Alice-in-Wonderland sociology of the Argentine Republic can one find a landowner's daughter who came of age in the 21st century speaking of her father's farm hands as "peons" (peones in Spanish). Yes, Virginia, it does have the serf-like connotation that you thought it did.

Not only that. Only in such a neo-feudal social structure could the daughter of the landowner, who is obviously not performing his serfs' backbreaking work, no matter how equine his labor, complain that a democratically elected labor-backed president is somehow effecting a social division between "oligarchs" and "people."

Might it not occur to Miss Victoria that any society in which a young woman feels perfectly comfortable referring to her father's employees as "peons" in a public, open letter to her president, already has the social divisions -- nay, canyons -- to which President Cristina Kirchner has merely alluded in response to the landowners absurd and false populism?

To be sure, to any Western eye the 45% levy (up from 35%) on certain agricultural exports will seem a tad high in a country known for its beef, its grains and in more recent years its fine Malbec wines, as well as its leather goods and woolens. But there's a story and a sound purpose behind the tax.

Argentina was once wealthy country (in 1908, its economy was the seventh in the world). Now a quarter of the population lives in poverty -- a proportion brought down from nearly half of the country as recently as 2003, by the policies of Kirchner's predecessor, her husband Nestor. Overwhelmingly, Argentines in the educated class evade personal income taxes massively and park assets overseas.

The levy on exports is one of the few iron-clad mechanisms the government has to raise revenue from wealthy landowners, in order to distribute it through public services to the less fortunate.

Indeed, one of the chief reasons this nation of 40 million overwhelmingly Catholic people of predominantly Spanish and Italian ancestry, whose its capital is at about the latitude of Cape Town, became impoverished was the lack of vision of the traditional landowning class.

From the 1880s through the 1920s, agricultural interests fought tooth and nail to saddle the nascent industrial sector with a taxation that guaranteed that the nation would always sell cattle and buy machinery. At a time when Canada, the United States and Europe were becoming industrial powerhouses, this amounted to national economic suicide.

The industrial entrepreneurs, moreover, took their economic model from the vast estates of the pampas. The greed of the landed elites and the industrialists brought about the revolt of the middle class in the 1920s and the arousal of an immigrant-led labor movement in the 1930s, which was quashed with military rule and fraudulent government through the early 1980s.

Only from 1946 to 1955, under the presidency of a labor-minded general of corporatist leanings, Juan Domingo Perón, did most of the social and economic advances we take for granted take place in Argentina: the women's right to vote, the 8-hour workday, the abolition of child labor and so on.

Cristina and Nestor Kirschner are modern, social democratic heirs of the Peronist tradition. In Argentina's political economy, the "farmers" who are "striking" really are the oligarchy (the ruling elite, from the Greek oligon, the few, and arko, rule), the few who live off the fat of the very rich, bountiful land worked upon by the underpaid and underworked peones.

Kirschner is no doubt far from perfect. Conversely, the landowners are probably not all wishing the generals would come back to torture la chusma, the rabble, into submission, as Kirschner has suggested -- but I'd wager that more than a few wouldn't mind a seeing some military boots goose-stepping once again.
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