Embattled Argentine farmers eye presidential vote with fear
PERGAMINO, Argentina - Juan Rossi walks between rows of green wheat at his farm in one of Argentina's most fertile agricultural regions, worrying about the future of the farming sector that is the main economic engine of this country.
When he planted the wheat, he expected conservative Mauricio Macri to be reelected president of Argentina. Now, farmers like Rossi are bracing for a possible return of the interventionist policies of Macri's now-favored main rival: the presidential ticket of Alberto Fernández and former President Cristina Fernández.
Export restrictions imposed during Cristina Fernandez's 2007-2015 left-of-center government triggered a revolt in 2008 by Argentina's farmers, who are among the world's top suppliers of grains. She is now running as vice president with her former aide bidding for the presidency in the Oct. 27 national elections.
Fears of a return of high export taxes come as agriculture seeks to rebound from one of the worst drought in years that badly damaged crops two seasons ago.
"Today, we have uncertainty about whether they'll allow us to continue as we've been doing so far, or if they're going to put a spoke in our wheel," Rossi said on his farm on the outskirts of the city of Pergamino, where he also grows corn and keeps chickens and peacocks. "We're in the middle of this fog and no one knows what's going to happen."
Rossi was among a group of jubilant Argentine farmers who cheered the business-friendly Macri when he arrived in their town in the Pampas grain belt in 2015 to announce that he would scrap taxes on exports of corn and wheat to jumpstart the economy.
It was a moment of victory for Macri, who had recently taken office, and of hope for farmers, who had been hobbled by the strict export limits imposed by the previous government. Since then, it has only been ups and downs.
Rossi says improved weather gave them some "oxygen" for this year's harvest. But then Macri surprisingly turned in a worse showing in primary elections than the left-leaning Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández, causing stocks to plunge and the peso to depreciate even further in recession-hit Argentina, which has been struggling with rapidly rising prices and increasing poverty.
The primary results also coincided with a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that lowered estimates for Argentina's soy and corn crops based on weather conditions, said Esteban Copati, head of agricultural forecasts at the Buenos Aires grains exchange.
"There was a double whammy," Copati said. "On the one side, there was this change in the political scenario that changed the intention of growers to plant since they started to become fearful of what the policies of this new government could be. And on the other hand, there was the impact of the drop in international prices."
Farmers and ranchers say they don't want a return to restrictions that in 2008 led them to block goods from reaching Argentine cities, causing severe shortages of beef and produce. Unmoved goods rotted and supermarket shelves were bare in many regions.
The three-week strike over export taxes became one of the biggest crises of Cristina Fernández's presidency. She said the taxes were aimed at redistributing the riches from the agricultural sector in a country where many are poor.
Farming leaders have met with Alberto Fernández, who served as chief of staff during a portion of Cristina Fernández's first term as president but left in 2008 following the conflict. The two are not related.
Farmers said the candidate asked them to turn the page at the recent meeting. He later told reporters that the session marked the "beginning of a good, fruitful bond."
The farming sector is a major source of foreign currency for Argentina and the next administration will be eager to count on bringing in those reserves to avert a debt default and a further deepening of a currency crisis.
Many Argentines are increasingly frustrated by the sputtering economy, rising poverty and austerity measures. Some analysts say that Macri's administration set overly optimistic goals and that a decision by the central bank to hike the inflation target caused investors to begin doubting Macri's commitment to taming price rises. Macri's government was forced to strike a record $56 billion bailout loan with the International Monetary Fund following a sharp depreciation of the peso against the U.S. dollar last year.
"After four years of the Macri government, we realize that this model that some of us cautioned about has become a reality," Sebastian Campo said as he herded cows at his farm on the outskirts of Pergamino. He said he is among a small minority in this area who don't back Macri, but he hasn't decided yet on whom to vote for.
In recent days, Macri has reached out to farmers, promising them "more technology, more innovation and less taxes" while praising their contributions at a time of crisis.
"Our countryside amounts to 40 percent of our economy and generates a third of jobs for Argentines," Macri said Saturday on Twitter. "We want to propel it so it can create more employment and opportunities."
It's no coincidence that shortly after he took office, Macri chose a farm in Pergamino to make one of the most important economic announcements of his presidency.
"Pergamino is an icon of agriculture in Argentina. It's the equivalent of the corn belt in the United States," said Agustin Tejeda, chief economic analyst at the Buenos Aires Grains Exchange. "It's in the heart of the most fertile lands and a great agricultural tradition."
The city of 105,000 people, located in Buenos Aires province, is also a hub for Argentine agribusiness. Farmers and ranchers drive pickup trucks and tractors along dusty roads passing through seemingly endless flat fields in one the world's top soy exporters and a key producer of corn and wheat.
"The road that Argentines have chosen is the road of change, of openness, of free trade," said Jorge Josifovich, an agricultural engineer who owns and manages farm lands in the area.
"Faced with the likelihood of a new (Fernández) government, we don't have any expectations that the road that began in 2015 will continue," he said. "They care very little about farmers. Just as we still see ghosts in them, they still see us as the enemy."