Argentine leader demands end to farmers' strike

President Cristina Fernandez told thousands of supporters Wednesday that a three-month strike against grain export-tax hikes was undemocratic and demanded that farmers lift road blockades that have caused food shortages across Argentina, the AP reported.

The massive rally in a Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo was seen as a show of force by Fernandez in response to anti-government protests fueled by the bitter standoff with Argentina's farmers.

"In the name of democracy, free up the highways, let Argentines get back to work," Fernandez told supporters who filled the plaza, many waving blue and white Argentine flags.

The leaders of Argentina's four main farmers' groups said Wednesday night that they would continue the strike for two more days.

Eduardo Buzzi, head of the Argentine Agrarian Federation, told a news conference that grain exports would remain suspended and trucks carrying grains would be blocked on highways through Friday at midnight. Perishable food products and meat will be allowed to pass.

Members of four major farming groups have waged a three-month standoff with the center-left government since Fernandez decreed the tax increases on grain exports, suspending soy, wheat and corn exports and blocking highways.

The blockades have emptied supermarket shelves of food and caused rural economies to flounder in a country that is one of the world's leading exporters of soy beans and corn.

Fernandez says the export tax increases are needed to share soaring farm profits with Argentina's 10 million poor. Farmers contend the higher taxes make it hard for them to make a living and that they need to reinvest profits to increase production to meet rising demand.

At Wednesday's rally, Fernandez said farm leaders wield too much political power even though "no one voted for them" in national elections. She said the protests were "interfering with democracy."

Buzzi countered that farm protesters are "not destabilizers" and are not trying to overthrow the government.

The president's speech came a day after she announced she was sending a bill to Argentina's two houses of Congress to debate the taxes, which she first implemented by presidential decree on March 11. Fernandez's Peronist party has a majority in both houses.

Congressional debate has been one of the farmers' key demands, but they claimed Wednesday night the president only wants a rubber stamp from lawmakers.

"We value the democratic gesture of sending the matter to Congress," Buzzi said. "But we do not agree with the project as it was sent to Congress," he said, since the bill only allows for the ratification of the contentious export tax increase.

Rural leaders will meet with Argentine lawmakers this weekend in attempt to open up to the bill to debate. Buzzi called for a meeting with Fernandez the following week.

On Monday, tens of thousands of Argentines took to the streets banging pots and pans and honking car horns, calling on the government to resume negotiations with the farmers.

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