Argentina 26/12/2011

A foreign policy win as Mercosur shuts its ports to Falklands boats, while the new government’s legislative onslaught continues.

Mercosur, the South American trade union comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay this week voted to close its ports to all boats flying the flag of the Falklands Islands Government (FIG). The FIG is the entity which administers the islands, known in Argentina as the Islas Malvinas, under the authority of the United Kingdom.

The measure was decided at a summit in Montevideo on Tuesday 20 December. The British Foreign Office responded with a communiqué declaring its ‘concern’. The minister with responsibility for Latin America, Jeremy Browne, said it was ‘unacceptable’ to place the islands, which Argentina claims as part of its territory, under an ‘economic blockade’.

The measure was preceded by unilateral ban on vessels with the Falklands flag by Uruguay, whose Foreign Minister Luis Almagro stated that the country’s position was part of its ‘anti-colonialist’ policy and a matter of ‘political coherence’. It comes after several months of concerted diplomatic efforts on the issue by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her Foreign Minister, Héctor Timerman.

It is as yet unclear whether the measure will have practical legal force or will in essense form a symbolic show of support for Argentina’s claim. The islands have been under British control since 1833, and next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the war Argentina unsuccessfully fought to reclaim them.

Elsewhere in the news, the newsprint bill which last week was making its way through Congress has now become law.  the move mandates Papel Prensa, the only Argentine producer of newsprint, to sell the product at an equal price to all print media outlets.

Reaction to the measure in the Argentine media has been sharply polarised, as was the voting in Congress. Clarín and La Nación, opposition newspapers which together own 73% of Papel Prensa, criticised the law as an attack on journalistic pluralism and freedom of speech.

Other newspapers, though, such as El Tiempo Argentino, welcomed the move as a step towards ending the ‘monopoly’ of Papel Prensa, which supplies 78% of the Argentine market.

In a parallel move, the Senate approved on Wednesday the passing of an anti-terrorist bill. José Sbatella, head of the Unidad de Investigaciones Financieras (Financial Investigations Unit – UIF) said that it would classify  certain ‘economic crimes’, potentially within the media, as terrorist acts.

Sbatella stated that the measure was targeted at groups with ‘great economic power’ who ’empty the reserves and terrorize the population’ – a likely reference to the financial crisis of December 2001, currently a prominent subject during its 10th anniversary.

He also agreed with a journalist who affirmed that ‘there are parts of the media who join in with those financial attacks’, talking about a ‘reduced nucleus of operators’. This was broadly perceived as an attack on the Clarín Group, which the government views as a monopoly.

Finally, on Thursday a law was passed by Congress which will limit the purchase of land in Argentina by foreign companies and persons. The law, which was passed almost unanimously, prevents such entities from owning more than 15% of Argentine territory.

A recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had highlighted the fact that countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have begun to purchase land in Argentina and Brazil to secure their food supply. The FAO calculates that 10% of Argentine territory is already in foreign hands.

The Argentine Congress has now passed 11 laws in the two weeks since Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was sworn in for a second term as president.