UPDATE 4-Argentina's Fernandez faces her first general strike

Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:59pm EST

* Protesters burn tires, block roads; businesses vandalized
    * Union boss calls mass work stoppage over tax policy
    * Workers protest government's response to high inflation


    By Alejandro Lifschitz and Nicolás Misculin
    BUENOS AIRES, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Opposition trade unions
protesting Argentina's economic policies brought public
transportation and the country's crucial grain exports to a halt
on Tuesday in the first general strike since President Cristina
Fernandez took office five years ago. 
    Demonstrators burned tires to block roads and vandalized a
handful of the businesses that opened despite the 24-hour work
stoppage called by bus drivers, train conductors and port,
airline and bank workers. They rallied in places including Plaza
de Mayo in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires.
    The general strike - the first to hit Argentina in a decade
- follows broad protests held on Nov. 8 over high crime, soaring
inflation and the government's policy response. 
    Farmers also joined the protest led by Hugo Moyano, a gruff
former truck driver once closely linked to Fernandez but now a
leading opposition figure. He wants lower taxes for workers
whose purchasing power has been drained by galloping inflation.
    "The silence of the streets, the absence of people in the
streets, in the shops, in the businesses - this is the voice
that the government must hear," Moyano told reporters, vowing to
keep pressing the demands of his CGT labor federation.
    Fernandez's popularity has tumbled since she easily won
re-election last year. Inflation is running at about 25 percent
despite a sputtering economy, according to private economists.
The government publishes much lower inflation data long
dismissed by the markets as inaccurate.
    The strike increases the stakes in the political battle
between Moyano and Fernandez, who condemned the strike and said
she would not be swayed on policy.
    "Today wasn't a strike. It wasn't even a picket. This was
about strong-arm tactics and threats," she told supporters at a
rally. "We cannot bow to extortion."
   Ties between Moyano and the president soured after the death
in late 2010 of Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez's husband and
predecessor as president.
    Moyano's CGT split earlier this year, with his allies
re-electing him as leader in a vote rejected by rival union
bosses aligned with Fernandez. The fracture in the umbrella
group risks deepening labor unrest as inflation stokes wage
demands. 
    
    'LOSING CONTROL'
    "This general strike raises the possibility that she is
losing control of the street and it puts the unions that are
allied with her in an uncomfortable position,"  Ignacio Labaqui,
who analyzes Argentina for emerging markets consultancy Medley
Global Advisors.
    Fernandez, meanwhile, is moving to shore up her base. Her
allies in Congress last month lowered Argentina's voting age to
16 from 18, a change that could help the politically ailing
president court the youth vote ahead of 2013 mid-term elections.
    Argentina is the world's top exporter of soy oil, needed to
make biofuels, and soymeal used to feed cattle as far away as
China, where the emerging middle class is clamoring for beef
steak. The South American country is also the second-biggest
corn exporter after the United States.
    "This (strike) was necessary, unfortunately," said Eduardo
Buzzi, who heads the Argentine Agrarian Federation, which
represents small-scale farms. "There is no way to dialogue. ...
This is the most anti-farm government Argentina has ever had."
    The agricultural sector has long quarreled with Fernandez
over the 35 percent export tax her government puts on soybean
exports and curbs it places on corn and wheat shipments.
    Telephone calls went unanswered at the main grains port of
Rosario. The usually noisy, truck-jammed entrance to the port of
Buenos Aires was still, with activity expected to resume on
Wednesday. The local stock and bonds market was also quiet.
    Just up the street from the presidential palace, tourist
attraction Cafe Tortoni closed its doors after being vandalized.
    "It's painful," a cafe employee told state television. "This
is like a second home to us."
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