An exception to Lula’s rule

The movement of landless workers in Brazil is unique in resisting co-option by the Lula government and has retained an impressive self-reliance and independent politics. For Sue Branford it is a beacon for the left worldwide. Here she explains why

March 23, 2009
8 min read

Now and then there emerges somewhere in the world a social movement that is really exceptional for its integrity, astuteness and mass appeal. For me one of those rare movements is Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, the Landless Workers’ Movement). Ever since it was founded in the early 1980s it has confounded predictions of its imminent demise. In the early days academics said that it was doomed because the peasantry was dying out all over the world. And today economists say the MST is fighting a lost cause because of the rapid and apparently unstoppable expansion of agribusiness in Brazil. Yet, against the odds, the movement has not only survived but steadily expanded. And, who knows, its ‘historical moment’ may yet come with the looming crisis in destructive, energy-profligate industrial farming.

Although many of us who went out into the streets to celebrate Lula’s election in October 2002 find it painful to admit it, nearly all of Brazil’s social movements and trade unions are weaker today than they were then. The clearest example is the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the left-wing trade union body that, like Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, the Workers’ Party), was founded in the late 1970s, as the country mobilised to force the military government to step down.

Since those early days the CUT has always been closely linked to the PT, so it was no surprise when Lula, who has always felt more at ease with trade unionists than with left-wing intellectuals, invited leading members of the CUT to become ministers or top aides in his government. Unfortunately, this has meant that the CUT has become, in practice, little more than the labour arm of the government, and has even supported Lula when he has taken measures that have weakened the labour movement.

A similar fate has befallen the country’s main rural workers trade union, Contag. Members of Contag have administered the country’s timid land settlement programme and have occupied top positions within the ministry for rural development. This has meant that Contag no longer campaigns for radical agrarian reform and limits itself to lobbying for piecemeal advances for rural workers and peasant families.

From blind trust to disillusion

The main exception to this depressing story of co-option has been the MST, not that the movement has escaped scot-free. The rural poor were jubilant when Lula was elected president. Tens of thousands of families joined the movement and squatted on the verges of federal highways, confident that Lula would honour his earlier pledge to the MST ‘to give you so much land that you will not know what to do with it’. The MST leadership, however, was wary from the start, turning down Lula’s repeated offers of top jobs for MST leaders.

For a few years, the blind trust that many rural families felt in Lula caused problems for the MST. On several occasions militants organised marches in support of the movement’s radical demands, only to have Lula come down from the presidential palace and speak directly to the marchers in his charismatic way. On one memorable occasion, Lula doffed the MST’s characteristic red cap and spoke to the march. ‘You have waited for 500 years to see a working-class man in the presidency of Brazil,’ he said. ‘But I can’t achieve everything you want in just a few years. And I beg you to be patient.’ Lula was applauded at the end of his address, to the evident discomfort of some of the militants.

However, as time has passed, it has become increasingly clear to the grassroots that the leaders were right not to align the movement too closely with the Lula administration. The grassroots know now that the government will not deliver the kind of agrarian reform that they want and they have become disillusioned. Lula no longer comes to speak to the marches and MST leaders have become more open in their criticisms.

In a typical statement, João Pedro Stédile, one of the main MST leaders, said earlier this year: ‘Our analysis of the Lula government’s policies shows that Lula has favoured the agribusiness sector much more than family-owned agriculture. The general guidelines of his economic and agricultural policy have always given priority to export-oriented agribusiness. And agrarian reform, the most important measure to alter the status quo, is in fact paralysed or restricted to a few cases of token social compensation.’

Along with more radical rhetoric, the MST is carrying on with its former strategy – which was never entirely abandoned, even in the early years of the Lula administration – of occupying latifúndios (landed estates). Even though the Lula administration is not repressing the occupations with the same ferocity as earlier governments, MST members are still dying in the ensuing conflicts.

Avoiding co-option

So how is it that the MST has managed so successfully to avoid co-option? The MST is, after all, a movement drawn from landless peasants and rural labourers, the sectors of society that throughout Brazil’s history have suffered most from patronage and clientelismo?

It is perhaps this very history that has made the MST different. From the beginning, MST leaders were suspicious of the authorities, which were always seen as allies of the landowners. It was a lesson that was driven home during the MST’s first national congress back in January 1985. The politician Tancredo Neves – already selected to become Brazil’s first civilian president after 21 years of military rule (even though, in the event, he died before he could take office) – had promised to attend. But, despite his repeated pledge to carry out wide-ranging agrarian reform, he never turned up and the organisers left an empty chair on the podium as a chill warning to the plenary that, just like the seat, the new government’s lofty promises might also prove empty.

It was a presentiment that proved all too accurate. Brazil’s new constitution in 1988 brought important advances in the many areas – personal freedom, labour legislation, rights of ethnic minorities and children, and so on – but it dashed the hopes of the landless. Even though progressive organisations, including the MST, collected over one million signatures for a petition calling for agrarian reform, landowners lobbied Congress and the clauses dealing with land distribution were watered down into almost meaningless generalities. This was not a temporary setback: one after another Brazil’s civilian rulers backed away from confrontation with Brazil’s powerful rural elites.

Abandoned by the authorities, the MST coined one of its most powerful and enduring slogans: occupation is the only solution. MST leaders told the movement that they would only win land through grass-roots mobilisation and the organisation of daring and dangerous land occupations. Today MST activists often boast (not altogether accurately) that every hectare of the seven million or so they farm today was conquered through land occupations.

This mentality that goals can only be achieved through struggle has permeated the movement, even affecting the internal balance of power. Even though rural trade unions only allowed heads of household (which generally meant men) to affiliate, the MST decided from the beginning to permit women and young people to become full members. It was an important advance but not, by itself, sufficient to guarantee gender equality: women members found that within the movement they were expected to conform to a patriarchal culture dominated by sexist peasant values. So, as one woman leader confided to me, ‘We decided to “occupy” the MST.’ And indeed they did, filling all the available political space and gradually opening up the movement to full participation by women. ‘It’s an ongoing struggle,’ another activist said recently. ‘But we’re getting there.’

Today self-reliance has become one of the main characteristics of the MST. This does not mean that the MST sees itself as isolated from the rest of society. On the contrary, it believes it is involved in a broad struggle to ‘democratise’ the state, in the sense of making the state break its age-old links with the ruling elites and respond to the needs of the mass of poor Brazilians. To do this, the MST must maintain its own independence from government.

The MST and PT

There has traditionally been a certain mistrust between the MST and the PT, partly because petistas have resented the MST’s wariness of them, along with all politicians. But today some petistas realise that perhaps they might have done better to follow some of the MST’s precepts. When Lula became president, he demanded total loyalty from all petistas, with some federal deputies being expelled from the party for failing to support a key government bill on social welfare reform. But from the beginning this was a dangerous tactic: Lula was elected by an alliance of parties and formed a coalition government. As a result, Lula frequently adopted policies that ran counter to the PT’s programme.

If the PT had retained some degree of independence and turned down Lula’s demand for blind loyalty, the party would be in a stronger position. It is not the PT but the MST that is today a beacon for the left worldwide. No one within the MST expects the future to be easy, partly because it will take a decade, at least, to rebuild the left in Brazil. But the MST has remained faithful to its principles and will be able to seize opportunities, whenever they arise.


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