March 29, 2012 1:00PM

Argentina Bans Book Imports due to ‘Human Health Concerns’

The Argentine government has severely restricted the importation of books due to “human health concerns” [in Spanish]. That’s right. According to the government, it can be dangerous to “page through” a book that has high lead quantities in its ink. “If you put you finger in your mouth after paging through a book, that can be dangerous,” said Juan Carlos Sacco, the vice‐​president of an industrialist organization that supports the measure.

The government claims that this is not a ban. However, since each buyer has to demonstrate at the airport’s customs office that the ink in the purchased book has lead quantities no higher than 0.006% in its chemical composition, the result is that all book imports into the country are stalled.

The measure has a lot to do with the increasing efforts of the Argentine government to stop the flight of dollars out of the country. Capital flight in 2011 reached $21.5 billion, and it accelerated after the reelection of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in October. Facing increasing fiscal pressures, and after seizing private pension funds and raiding the Central Bank’s reserves, many people expect the government to go after their bank savings.

The government has reacted with increasingly ridiculous measures. Sniffing dogs are being deployed at airports and border check points to detect the ink used to print U.S. bills, so Argentines cannot take out of the country more than $10,000 without declaring it to the government. The Fernandez administration is also requiring major importers such as automakers to match the price of their imports with that of goods they must now export. As a result, Porsche is exporting Malbec wine and Mitsubishi is now selling peanuts.

This is the economy that Paul Krugman defended as a “serious country.”

The government’s proliferation of capital and import controls is now clearly threatening freedom of speech. The restriction on foreign books is a measure consistent with the Fernandez administration recent push against independent newspapers and its growing authoritarian tendencies. As an Argentine friend told me last night, “I’m pretty confident that they’ll come after the Internet any time soon.”