Argentina fuel strike hits supplies, defies government

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jun 21, 2012 12:59 PM
Argentina fuel strike hits supplies, defies government
By Helen Popper and Guido NejamkisBUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Gas stations in Argentina ran low on fuel on Thursday as striking truckers blocked depots and refineries in one of the biggest trade-union challenges to President Cristina Fernandez's in her five-years in office.Fernandez, a combative center-leftist, returned to the country from an overseas trip early due to the protest by the truck drivers' union - feared by governments for its capacity to bring Latin America's third-biggest economy to a standstill.She has deployed military police to guard fuel plants blockaded by truckers and implemented emergency supply plans in an effort to avert shortages, a situation not seen since a rebellion by farmers in 2008."Currently, fuel supplies are down by 70 percent," said Luis Malchiodi, head of the Federation of Fuel Entities of Buenos Aires province. "By midday tomorrow, there practically won't be anything left anywhere."The three-day strike by fuel truckers is due to end at midday on Friday, but powerful union boss Hugo Moyano vowed to call a nationwide strike by all truck drivers, who number about 200,000. He was due to announce details of the protest later on Thursday.Moyano, whose son leads the truckers' union, used to be a close ally of the president but their strategic alliance collapsed over the last year.Loathed by many middle-class Argentines, the burly truck driver also heads the nation's largest labor federation and he will seek a third term as president in an election next month.The truck drivers' union launched its protest targeting fuel distribution to back demands for a 30-percent pay increase and income tax reductions.The government launched a criminal complaint over the strike and fined the truckers' union four million pesos ($888,400) for defying an order to negotiate, accusing Moyano of hurting ordinary Argentines."This is a humanitarian issue ... It fills us with dismay and we hope normality and rationality return as quickly as possible," Planning Minister Julio De Vido told a news conference.He said whole rural communities had been left without household gas supplies at the start of the southern hemisphere winter and said several northern provinces and key highways were virtually without automobile fuel.Argentina is one of the world's biggest exporters of grains and the vast majority of farm goods are sent to port by truck. Farmers, who are nearing the end of this year's soy and corn harvest, are also major consumers of fuel.Serious disruption to grain transportation, oil refineries and industrial gas supplies is unlikely, however, if the truckers end their protest as planned on Friday.Annual inflation estimated at about 25 percent is stoking labor unrest as the economy cools after a long boom.Surging prices have also fueled capital flight and eroded the competitiveness of Argentine goods, prompting Fernandez to slap unorthodox curbs on imports and foreign currency purchases that are riling importers and the middle class.SUCCESSION STRUGGLEThe strike also reflects jostling for position within Moyano's CGT federation ahead of next month's leadership elections and within Fernandez's ruling and fragmented Peronist party, analysts say."There's a struggle going on within Peronism that stems from the president's strategy to accumulate and concentrate her personal power since her re-election," said Pascual Albanese, vice president of the Institute of Strategic Planning think-tank.Fernandez, who won a second term by a landslide in October, is unable to run again in 2015 unless the constitution is changed. She controls Congress but might struggle to get the two-thirds support needed to change the country's charter.There are signs of a nascent succession struggle in her party, which has traditionally had close ties with the unions.That could deepen the conflict with Moyano, who local media have suggested is forging closer ties with Daniel Scioli, a moderate Peronist who runs the country's biggest province and is seen as a potential successor to Fernandez."When a conflict has a political objective, it's difficult to imagine that it won't end up escalating," said local pollster and analyst Sergio Berensztein.($1 = 4.5025 Argentine pesos)(Additional reporting by Magdalena Morales; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Jackie Frank)