Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Are Non-Argentine Books a Health Hazard? Moreno v. Amazon

South America has two of the world’s greatest river systems: the Amazon, which drains several different countries before emptying into the Atlantic in Brazil, and the Río de la Plata (River Plate), which enters the South Atlantic between Argentina and Uruguay. In the interests of chauvinism, though, Argentine domestic trade secretary Guillermo Moreno recently tried to do away with the Amazon.
Well, at least with Amazon.com. In a notorious case some months ago, a Spanish author on a Buenos Aires speaking tour was unable to get his books out of Argentine customs because of an arbitrary ruling that, if I recall the gist correctly, requires foreign countries to accept an equivalent amount of Argentine exports for every import – whether or not there’s a demand for those exports. Obsessed with surging imports and capital flight, the government has employed dollar-sniffing dogs at airports and borders crossings, and even restricted Argentines’ ability to use their ATM cards outside the country.

Apparently such measures seemed inadequate, so Moreno – who became (in)famous for brandishing a pistol at a meeting with soybean farmers who came to plead against what they considered punitive export duties – recently decided to focus on books. In principle, any Argentine could order an individual book from Amazon or another online reseller to bypass import restrictions but, for Moreno, that was a challenge.

Thus came to be a trade measure decreeing that anyone who ordered such a book, presumably paying by credit card, would have to pick up that book in person at Buenos Aires’s international airport at Ezeiza – even if he or she lived in Tierra del Fuego – and pay a premium of as much as US$80 for the privilege of doing so (I sure would like to have royalties on such a surcharge for every purchase of Moon Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Patagonia). According to Buenos Aires Herald columnist James Neilson, who dissected the issue with an irony that I cannot possibly match, Moreno claimed that foreign books were a health hazard because their ink contained higher lead levels than books produced in Argentina. Presumably, added the sardonic Neilson, poetry books deserved an exception because they use less ink.

Later in the week, though, according to Herald columnist Martín Gambarotta, Moreno finally rescinded the measure, and Argentines are once again free to launder their pesos abroad on foreign literature.

The saga may not be over, though. This coming April 19th is the opening day of Buenos Aires’s Feria del Libro (pictured at top), the continent’s largest book fair, attracting hundreds of thousands of avid readers over a three-week period. As usual, numerous foreign publishers and authors, including several from the English-speaking world, are due to participate - but who knows whether or not Moreno will let them get their merchandise out of customs?

The erratic trade policies still apply to other goods, in any event. The CEO of Telecom Argentina was recently quoted to the effect that the easiest way for an Argentine to purchase an iPhone would be to travel to Miami - Moreno has prohibited their sale in Argentina because Apple does not manufacture the devices there.

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