In Argentina, They've Got a Beef
Monday, March 20, 2006
BUENOS AIRES -- Guillermo Ugartemendia has nothing against making sacrifices for his country, but like millions of Argentines, he drew the line when the president asked everyone to stop eating so much beef.
"Unthinkable," said Ugartemendia, 35, after polishing off a rack of ribs at a steakhouse Thursday night. "It's not a viable option."
Asking Argentines to slow their beef consumption -- as President Nestor Kirchner did last week in an attempt to curb inflation -- is like asking Italians to say no to pasta, Parisians to skip wine, or the Chinese to eat less rice.
People here eat more beef than do people in any other country -- about 140 pounds a year per person, or about 50 percent more than the average American. A juicy slab of marbled steak is more than a meal for many of Argentina's 39 million citizens; it's part of their national identity.
Patricia Campos, mother of three teenagers, briefly considered heeding Kirchner's call and cooking something other than steak -- fish fillets, maybe -- for her family. What's the worst that could have happened?
"They would starve to death," she said, just before she paid her local butcher for three sackfuls of red meat, some cuts of which jumped in price by more than 5 percent during the first 15 days of this month. "They simply wouldn't eat. I understand that we need to do something about inflation, but this isn't the solution."
Argentines remember the hyperinflation of the 1980s, when it was possible for a carton of milk to double in price in one day. Now inflation is much lower -- just over 12 percent last year -- but Kirchner is trying to stop the rate from creeping up again before it spirals out of control.
This month he also banned all beef exports for six months, an attempt to make the laws of supply and demand work in his favor and reduce prices at local supermarkets.
"Let's make them feel the power of the consumer so they don't sell at whatever prices they want," Kirchner said in a televised speech Tuesday.
The moves have provided fuel for Kirchner's critics, who say he meddles with the marketplace to try to protect his domestic political standing. Argentina is the world's third-largest exporter of beef, and cattle industry representatives have called the ban shortsighted. Experts in some of the country's main export markets, including Russia and Israel, are predicting beef shortages.
But Kirchner's approval rating at home remains at about 60 percent, and his supporters say the export ban is part of a valiant effort to help them regain spending power and stabilize the economy. It was in the same spirit last year that he called for a boycott of Shell gasoline in the wake of price increases. Hundreds took up his call and picketed outside the company's service stations.
As for last week's suggestion to eat something other than beef, even some supporters said it might not work.