On March 11, Martin Lousteau (then Argentina's Economy Minister) announced that the tax on the export of soy would be increased to about 44%, with that percentage being indexed to the price on the international market. As that price went up, so too would the tax. Taxes on exports, or "retenciones", were first applied (at a level of 20%) in 2002 by then President Eduardo Duhalde. The agricultural sector ("El Campo") had gone along - likewise when the rentenciones went up to 25%, and then 35%. But 44% was seen as confiscatory. The fact that it was announced in the middle of the harvest, without consulting the agro sector, and decreed ex cathedra only aggravated the situation.
After that announcement, the farmers (driving tractors and pickup trucks) took to the streets in hopes of getting the President's attention. Highways were closed to any trucks transporting agricultural goods - whether soy or wheat on their way to the port, or beef and dairy on their way to the Central Market in Liniers (just outside Buenos Aires). There were food shortages. In a country with a population of 40 million and argicultural capacity to feed almost ten times that number, supermarkets had to resort to placing limits on the amount of milk or flour one could buy. For about a week, beef - the cheap availability of which is the birthright of every Argentine - was nowhere to be had in Buenos Aires. As one local
Perhaps calculating the shortages would turn public opinion against the farmers, in the late-afternoon of March 25 President Fernandez de Kirchner directly addressed the situation in a widely-anticipated speech. Many hoped that she would choose this moment to make good on indications she had given during her campaign that she would leave behind the heavy-handed, take-no-prisoners style of her predecessor (husband Nestor Kirchner) and adopt a more conciliatory, magnanimous tone. Instead, the farmers got a petulant, finger wagging dress-down, in which she accussed them of being motivated by nothing other than greed. In other words, instead of sitting down and talking with the representatives of what is arguably the economic engine of the country, she gave them a spanking.
The response to the speech was immediate, not only among the farmers and the vast numbers of people in the interior who depend upon them economically, but among many residents of Buenos Aires. By 8 pm that same evening, while a fair amount of porteños (as the residents of BA call themselves) was banging pots and pans, either out on their balconies or in the streets, more tractors and farm machinery were deployed to highways throughout the country. Later, a few thousand people - mostly middle and upper-middle class - converged on the Plaza de Mayo, the political epicenter of the country, in a peaceful demonstration in support of the farmers.
Being a citizen of a country which seems largely to have lost the will to take to the streets in the face of the many recent outrages committed by its rulers, my first reaction to the pot-banging and the protest in the Plaza de Mayo was one of admiration. Agree with them or not (and what the hell do I know about agricultural policy anyway?), what's not to like about a group of citizens peacefully manifesting its displeasure with the policies of its government? We could use a little of this spirit in Washington DC right now.
As the protest was winding down, a group of counter-demonstrators entered the Plaza. Again, nothing wrong with this - except for the fact that some of them were wielding yard-long lengths of wood. Their banners announced their intentions. "La Plaza es de las Abuelas y del Pueblo" ("the plaza belongs to the