BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentines have been complaining for a while now about the country’s product shortages. And, until recently, the government has managed to brush aside such protests, which have centered around Argentina’s import restrictions.
Well until, that is, the country’s 20.6 million women couldn’t find their favorite tampons earlier this month - during the height of summer.
“For 20 days, we simply couldn’t source any tampons from wholesalers,” said Ariel, a 29-year old pharmacy owner.
To be sure, Argentina’s tampon squeeze is a far cry from shortages plaguing Venezuela and Cuba. But it has managed to launch a debate about the country’s tight control of imports and foreign currency.(Imports were down 11 percent during the first 11 months of 2014, the latest period for which data is available.)
The government vowed to keep the supply chain filled with tampons - and apparently has had some success at that.
But, at the same time, it has remained defiant. Officials of Latin America’s third largest economy blamed logistical problems, among other things, for the shortages and made it clear there will be no policy changes.
Shortages are just another in a long list frustrations felt by Argentines. Chief among them: inflation that is, according to some estimates, soaring at just under a 40% annual rate. It is so bad that many Argentines are calling for a change in leadership in next October’s elections.
Shut out of global credit markets since its record 2002 bond default of $100 billion, Argentina restricted imports three years ago to protect its shrinking dollar horde. Many retailers complain those restrictions have been tightened since another debt default in July.
“The government has no long-term strategy for imports ... It just deals with each issue as and when it arises,” said Miguel Ponce, spokesman for the Chamber of Importers.
The government’s response to such criticism? It believes opponents, including the media, are using the tampon supply as a weapon in the debate over trade policy.
The press stoked a “run on tampons” as part of “campaign to delegitimize the government’s system for managing foreign commerce,” charged commerce secretary Augusto Costa. Suppliers, meanwhile, held back stock to push prices higher, government officials said.
On the bright side, the tampon shortage has provided an opportunity for a good, though not exactly tasteful, joke or two on Twitter (Sample: “If I take back from Costa Rica tampons for all the women asking me for some, they will stop me at Ezeiza (airport) for being a tampon trafficker”)
Still, the lack of supplies is no joke for merchants and consumers alike.
When one media outlet set up a twitter hashtag for shoppers to list products they could not find, police officer Andres Maldonado responded that he couldn’t find the medicine his grandfather needed to treat his Alzheimer’s.
“We couldn’t get any during October, finally my grandmother managed to get some via my uncle traveling to southern Argentina for his work,” he told Reuters. “After that we managed to find it again, but for almost twice the price.”
The tampon shortage is on track to being resolved. But Argentina’s overall economic woes? Not as easy a fix.
The country’s reserves stand at just $31.3 billion, down 40 percent in four years. Economists warn that Argentina could face a liquidity crunch if it can’t tap global capital markets soon. That would take striking a deal with the hedge funds suing it for full repayment on unpaid debt.
But hopes for a settlement under the current government have waned in recent weeks. Officials have made it clear it will not give in to the creditors it calls “vultures”.
“The trade balance will likely remain the only source of hard currency income for the government,” said Ponce, of the Chamber of Importers. “And with exports falling, that means the import restrictions will continue.”
Additional reporting by Eliana Raszewski and Hernan Nessi; Editing by Simon Gardner and Hank Gilman