Grain deal helps Soviets edge out US as Argentina's top trade partner

The Soviet Union is becoming Argentina's best customer - and the Argentines expect to keep it that way for some years to come. The Soviets, for their part, give every indication they want their growing trade with Argentina to continue.

Meanwhile, the United States has fallen to second place in Argentine trade. Economic officials in Buenos Aires say that the US, which has long purchased Argentine agricultural products, including livestock, won't win back first place at any early date.

Wheat exports to the Soviet Union during the past harvest increased by 2,000 percent, to nearly 2.5 million tons.

In 1980 the two nations signed an agreement providing for Soviet purchases of 22.5 million tons of corn, sorghum, and soybeans between 1981 and 1985.

Additional increases in sales of grain - and other items such as livestock and light manufactures - to the Soviet Union are also likely in the months ahead , Argentine sources say. It is understood the Soviets are negotiating a sizable sale of Argentine livestock.

This growing Argentine-Soviet trade link dates from the mid-1970s, when the Soviet Union began to challenge the US as Argentina's best customer. But not until 1980 did the Soviets edge ahead of the US. Now Argentine officials say the Buenos Aires-Moscow link is firmly established, the result of two factors:

* Argentina's refusal to join the embargo on grain sales to the Soviets ordered by President Carter in January 1980 to protest their intervention in Afghanistan.

* Persistent Russian grain harvest shortfalls. This year's harvest is expected to be 30 percent below the official goal. The last two years' harvests were equally disappointing.

Although the US grain embargo has been lifted, renewed Soviet purchases of US grain will not cut into Soviet purchases in Argentina at least until 1986.

The Soviet Union says it wants to expand its trade with other countries in Latin America as well.

Brazil, for example, recently concluded a $5 billion reciprocal trade deal with the Soviet Union providing for an annual sale of close to 1 million tons of soybeans and soybean products between 1982 and 1986 and at least 500,000 tons of corn between 1983 and 1986.

In return, the Soviet Union is supplying Brazil with 20,000 barrels of crude oil per day at a reduced price of $35 a barrel, which helps Brazil make up for Iraqi oil, production of which has slowed because of the war with Iran.

There are hints also that the Soviet Union wants to resume trade with Chile, which has been suspended since 1973 when the Chilean military toppled the Marxist-leaning government of President Salvador Allende Gossens.

The staunchly anti-Soviet government of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte indicates it might consider trade with the Soviets. Chile formerly supplied the Soviet Union with specialty products ranging from garlic to wine - and could do so again.

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