Javier I. Gamboa, head of Alpargatas, one of Argentina's largest privately owned conglomerates, does not worry too much about the European Community's trade embargo. He used to sell fish to France and West Germany and now, seven weeks into a Common Market boycott, he says he still does.
"In fishing, we triangulate through a friendly country," Gamboa said. "It costs us more, but we keep doing business with Europe."
Triangulation--the routing of goods through a third country--is one of the ways canny Argentine traders say they have found to thwart the sanctions declared by the European Community after the Falkland Islands invasions.
As an instrument of diplomacy, the European trade embargo failed at the start to bring Argentina and Britain closer to a negotiated settlement. Now, as a test case of economic warfare, businessmen and government officials here maintain, it is proving to be largely symbolic.
Argentina normally sells more than $2 billion worth of goods, or 21 percent of its annual exports, to the European Community. Most of the sales are in agricultural products.
In early April, when rumors of possible sanctions began to circulate, telex lines between Argentina and Europe were jammed with last-minute contract agreements.
"The entire fruit crop was sold in two days," said one economist with the First National Bank of Boston here.
When the embargo took effect in mid-April, Argentine companies and trade officials launched a massive effort to expand into new markets. Iran bought one million tons of grain. Large quantities of meat were sold to Egypt, Iraq and Algeria. Gamboa, who once sold denims and corduroys to Britain, now sells them to Mexico and Spain.
"It's a hiccup," said Archibald B. Norman, editor of the Review of the River Plate, a financial weekly here, scoffing at British reports that the embargo is costing Argentina $40 million a week.
To be sure, the sanctions--the stiffest imposed by the European Community in its 25-year history--could begin to hurt once existing contracts expire, perhaps in the next one to six months, depending on the industry. However, the May 17 defection of Italy and Ireland considerably weakened the effect of the embargo extension by the other seven community nations, plus Norway, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong.
A decade ago, this nation shipped half its goods to the European Community, but as the community raised agricultural tariffs Argentina turned to the Soviet Union, which now buys almost 80 percent of the grain crop.
So far, a counterembargo imposed by Argentina on community imports has caused little disruption because contracts were signed before it took effect. Moreover, as a result of the war, Argentina drastically cut all imports, particularly of luxury items, to conserve foreign exchange.
"Don't believe what you read in the papers," said Economy Minister Roberto Alemann in an interview last week. "For the time being the sanctions have caused some damage, but not very much. We lost $21 million a month, half of that for meat, when the British suspended all shipments, even ones that were contracted for--contrary to all the rules of international commerce.
"But the other countries are not preventing the sale of contracted goods. We are looking for other markets. Iran showed up. Also, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru are buying, particularly through government procurement."
Despite reports that foreign banks are rolling over Argentina's loan payments, Alemann denied that the embargo is making it more difficult for this nation to meet its $35 billion foreign debt. Two weeks ago, he flew to Europe to reassure nervous bankers.
"Just keep their exposure here, that's all we ask of the banks," he said. "If we pay 10, give us another 10."
If U.S. banks had cut off credit to Argentina as British banks did, some businessmen here speculate that Argentina would have had to pull out of the Falklands quickly. U.S. banks hold $9 billion of Argentina's foreign debt, and the United States has enjoyed a healthy trade surplus with Argentina.
When the United States sided with Britain, it adopted a few symbolic sanctions such as cutting off future Export-Import Bank loans and commodity credits, which Argentina did not use anyway.
"Very intelligent," Alemann said sarcastically.
The inconvenience caused by the European trade disruption has sparked some ingenious schemes. Five weeks ago a British ship, the Port Quebec, loaded sorghum destined for the Soviet Union at Diamante, a river port. Several days later, the same ship, renamed the Quebec under a Liberian flag, docked a few miles downstream at Rosario to load corn.
Likewise, the 881-ton Captain Paddon arrived in Buenos Aires April 7 under British flag and left April 16 under the Grand Cayman flag.
"Some flags are more convenient than others," the Review of the River Plate noted dryly.
Luis Bamuele, president of the Meat Exporters Association here, said that before the trade embargo, "No product left the port without 'Made in Argentina' stamped on the container. Now they look the other way. They don't require the label. Why should we complicate life? This way someone in Venezuela can buy meat and reexport it to France or Britain."
Until the sanctions were imposed, about 40 percent of Argentina's beef, grass-fed on the vast pampas, was exported to European Community countries. About a third of that went to Brtain and a third to West Germany, choice cuts for discriminating palates. The corned beef British soldiers are eating in the Falklands came from Argentina.
Now, exporters here are selling to populous Middle Eastern and African countries, but the value per ton is far less, since the governments there want cheap meat.
"Selling our tenderloin there is like giving chocolates to an elephant," Bamuele complained. "They want quantity, not quality."
However, thanks to European contracts frantically negotiated days before the embargo took effect, Bamuele said 90 percent of May's supplies and 70 percent of June's supplies are already sold. July, August and September, Argentina's winter months, are a slow period anyway, he added.
Hugo Stupenengo, a cotton broker here, says he will not sell to Britain because, "You don't sell to a country you are fighting in a war." Other brokers are not so scrupulous, he noted, adding that a Liverpool firm, Baumann-Hinde, signed several million dollars worth of contracts through an Argentine subsidiary after word of the embargo leaked.
As for Stupenengo, who continues to sell most of his cotton to the United States, he has found a new market: China.
The boomerang effect of the community sanctions may damage some European companies here. Argentina closed down Air France and other airlines from boycotting countries. A Dutch company was barred from bidding on a large government gas pipeline project. A French consortium reportedly is in danger of losing the civil works contract for the billion-dollar Yacyreta Dam to an Italian consortium that had submitted a higher bid.
Sales by Glaxo, a British pharmaceutical firm, are 30 percent down as a result of a pharmacists' boycott. Bayer, a German company, which owns five factories here, has lost $10 million in its chemical import business.
Siemens, the West German electronics and communications giant, is frantically contacting its plants in South Africa, Brazil, India and other nations for tiny parts that it normally buys from its German factories.
A flurry of meetings designed to boost trade with Latin American nations have been held in the last month, including a large seminar sponsored by the Bank of Boston. Venezuelan and Peruvian officials have strongly criticized the embargo. Caracas dockworkers refused this week to unload British whiskey.
One president of a U.S. company here said, however, "The economics are against an integrated Latin American market. It costs more to ship goods to Colombia from here than to Rotterdam."
More than the practical effects of the trade disruption, businessmen and government officials say the psychological effects could be long lasting.
"The boycott is abusive and arbitrary," said Alfredo H. Esposito, undersecretary for international trade negotiations. "It leaves wounds that are difficult to stitch. It is a case of strong countries against a weak country. They did not dare take such measures against the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan."