RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to politics in Argentina. That country's new president is involved in a fiery showdown with farmers there. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is accusing farmers of being coup mongers, and farmers are calling her an autocrat. Those who produce soy products are irate over a new tax on soy exports, which the government has used to revive the economy.
Farmers went on strike for three weeks. That paralyzed supermarkets and exports, and they say they'll go on strike again if their demands aren't met. From Buenos Aires, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the most serious crisis yet facing the president, who succeeded her husband several months ago.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Argentina's politics is proving a sport every bit as rough as its soccer.
(Soundbite of soccer match)
MCCARTHY: Power couple President Cristina Fernandez and popular husband Nestor Kirchner drew throngs of Peronists to the Plaza de Mayo. Posters of the glamorous Evita Baron competed with the story-high video images of Cristina Fernandez, who brushed back her flowing hair with a perfectly polished finger.
As stormy weather whipped up a sea of light blue Argentine flags, President Fernandez worked up a fury of her own against the farmers. She evoked the specter of the strike in 1976 that also led to food shortages and a military coup.
President CRISTINA FERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER (Argentina): (Spanish spoken)
MCCARTHY: Just months after the strike, a tragic dictatorship rose to power, Fernandez declared. This time they haven't come with tanks, she said, but with media generals who support the farmers and only show one side. On the farmer's side, soy producer Juan Geveria(ph) told a countryside rally meant to counter the president's that it is the policies of the Fernandez government that smack of a coup d'etat.
Mr. JUAN GEVERIA (Soy Producer): (Spanish spoken)
MCCARTHY: We're not the junta leaders, he said. The junta is the central power that voraciously hordes $12 billion in export taxes, breaking the laws of federalism. Geveria said that's the coup, that's destabilization.
Cristina Fernandez this week portrayed the big soy producers who control much of Argentina's commodity as oligarchs holding the country ransom to their profits, which have climbed along with global demand for soy. Class division infused her discourse.
Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)
MCCARTHY: As farmers ended their strike around a barbecue, young soy farmer Alexis Cutelle(ph) said framing the crisis in terms of a class war is bogus. Cutelle says along with rising costs of fertilizer and pesticides, the tax hike decreed last month is hammering him and thousands of small farmers like him.
Mr. ALEXIS CUTELLE (Soy Farmer): (Spanish spoken)
MCCARTHY: The president's tactic is to divide and conquer, he says, divide the city from the countryside and small producers from big ones. But division doesn't serve anybody, he says.
The government raised the export duty on soy from 35 to as much as 45 percent. Cutelle rejects government plans to give small producers a tax rebate. He's holding firm for a cut in the tax rate. But President Fernandez says a commodity boom can redistribute wealth - a policy popular with her supporters, who say one of the richest sectors of the economy should help benefit Argentina's eight million poor.
Furthermore, the government says, the tax controls inflation. But the farmers say if that's so, it's not working. Independent analysts put inflation at about 20 percent. As for redistributing wealth, 65-year-old soy farmer Hector Betonte(ph) says he's not seen that either.
Mr. HECTOR BETONTE (Soy Farmer): (Through translator) The president's government has raised billions but what does she do with the money? Maybe they can't manage it. I don't see any improved hospitals or schools or roads.
MCCARTHY: Standing before the empty meat case in the small shop he manages, Louis Torrico(ph) gives the president poor marks for her handling of the strike that stripped shelves of beef and poultry and shops of income.
Mr. LUIS TORRICO (Store Manager): (Spanish spoken)
MCCARTHY: She's always creating confrontation between the rich and the poor, always going to conflict and not dialogue, he says.
With all the polarization of the past week, a fruitful dialogue between the farmers and the government won't be easy. But the 28-day truce will at least give farmers the chance to harvest their soy beans and citizens the time to stock up on food.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Buenos Aires.
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