Argentina holds up book imports to help industry

AP News
Posted: Sep 29, 2011 9:30 PM
Argentina holds up book imports to help industry

Argentina's booksellers are accusing the government of censorship, saying more than a million imported books have stacked up in customs as authorities try to rebuild the country's printing houses.

The dispute is about commerce, not ideology, and publishing houses are only the latest sector of the economy to experience the strong-arm tactics of a government determined to rebuild domestic industrial capacity.

President Cristina Fernandez didn't directly address the customs controversy Thursday night when she inaugurated the new Museum of the Book and the Language. But she said her government is dedicated to restoring Argentina's ability to take care of itself in an uncertain world.

"The world is going in one direction and at times it seems like we're going to the opposite, but this is the necessary path to recover a country that already knew how to do things," she said.

The newspaper Clarin published a lengthy article Thursday describing how in order to liberate their books from customs' impound warehouses, publishers have been forced to meet with representatives of Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno and present plans for shifting their production to domestic printing houses.

The article said 1.6 million books remain impounded.

Clarin said publishing executives were too afraid of government retaliation to comment by name, but complain privately that Argentine printers either lack quality or are more expensive than overseas competitors. They also contend Argentine printers can't handle their volume.

"The editorial sector is surprised by the prolonged intervention that affects the basic right of the citizens to have access to the book as a vehicle of education and culture," the Publishing Chamber said in one of the few on-the-record statements objecting to the customs slowdowns.

Argentines are huge consumers of literature, buying 76 million books last year.

Of those, 60 million were printed outside the country, printers union officials say. Industry Minister Debora Giorgi has invoked similar figures, complaining that 78 percent of the books bought in Argentina are imported.

The publishers' chamber challenged those numbers, saying that two-thirds of the books sold in Argentina are printed domestically.

The unions also say it is inaccurate to say Argentina's printing industry can't print all the books purchased domestically.

"In fact, not only can it supply this market, it has the capacity to export as well. That's what happened in the past, we remember, when Argentina was one of the world's leading exporters of books in Spanish," Anselmo Morvillo, president of the graphics workers union FAIGA, said in a statement.

During Argentina's privatization binge in the 1990s, many of its factories were closed and the country counted on imports to sustain a consumer economy that eventually overheated, leading to a world-record default on foreign loans and devaluation of its currency. By 2002, Argentina's productive capacity was in ruins. A key aspect of government policy ever since has been to make "made-in-Argentina" a reality again.

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"Argentina is a country that has suffered so much cultural oppression ... the disaster of the 1990s, which finally collapsed in 2001," Fernandez said at the museum opening, appearing in full campaign mode ahead of her expected re-election Oct. 23. "There's a lesson we have to take, all of us Argentines: to be precisely ourselves, with our country, with our culture. Nobody can do for us what we can do."

A June 2001 law made imports of finished books and their accompanying material _ such as toys that are combined with children's books _ tax-free. Domestically produced finished books also are tax-exempt, but not the material they're made with, which puts Argentine printing houses at a disadvantage. Spain, China, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia all have moved forcefully into Argentina's publishing market since then, offering better prices than local shops.

Enrique Marano, a leader of FATIDA, another printers union, said that the government was acting on its own, but that his membership "fully supports the measures that help to defend the nation's production and jobs, and to detain the introduction of finished printed works that can and should be done inside Argentina."