Crunch time for Lula

"We are following the example given to us by Lula," said Joao Paulo Rodrigues - one of the leaders of Brazil's powerful Landless Movement (MST). "He taught us how to organise the people and to struggle. He is our reference point." Rodrigues was addressing thousands of people marching for agrarian reform in Pontal do Paranapanema, a huge area of disputed land to the extreme west of the state of Sao Paulo. He was defending the MST against accusations of "lawlessness" made by enraged landowners.

October 1, 2003
7 min read

Land has become the crucial issue in Brazil, as social movements and conservative forces fight over the direction of the government of Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva. The conflict highlights Lula’s difficulties as he struggles to find a non-violent way forward for Brazil after a decade of market-oriented policies that have left the economy mired in recession and dangerously dependent on foreign finance.

The president is now facing the Herculean task of responding to the huge expectations among the poor and the landless, while also honouring his promise to respect both the country’s democratic procedures and the contracts made by earlier governments with the International Monetary Fund and private creditors.

The Pontal is one of the areas where the land conflict is turning nasty. Originally inhabited by Kaingang and Guarani-Kaiowa Indians, the region was illegally occupied in the early 20th century by landowners presenting fraudulent documents. Sociologist Zander Navarrro explains its importance: “The MST knew it could occupy these estates without being accused of invading legitimate private properties. It organised scores of occupations for landless peasants. The occupations were in the country’s most important state, so the national press had to pay attention.”

For some years the Pontal has been a beacon for Sao Paulo families looking for land. Four years ago Ercelina Mendonca and her four sons fled there from a poor neighbourhood in the Sao Paulo suburb of Osasco. Since then the family has been living in a black polythene tent in an MST road camp, getting by on seasonal agricultural jobs. “It was impossible to bring up the children properly in the place we lived, with all its violence,” Mendonca told the O Estado de S Paulo newspaper. “Now that Lula is president, I”m sure I”ll get my own plot of land before the end of the year.”

Since Lula was elected the flow of people to Brazil’s road camps has intensified. In total, there are around 650 such camps. Together they house about 600,000 people. Alarmed, landowners are using their age-old control of the state apparatus to repress the MST. At the end of July a Pontal judge connived with them to sentence MST leader Jose Rainha to a 32-month prison term. Nilmario Miranda, the president’s special adviser on human rights, called the ruling “absurd”. “This is the wrong path,” he said. “To criminalise a social movement will only radicalise it, make it lose its trust in the state of law.”

Mobilisation for land reform is happening all over the country. Researcher Nina Simoes recently visited Brazil’s smallest state, Sergipe. “Lots of people travelled to Sergipe to work on a hydroelectric power station,” she said. “Now the project’s finished, they”ve lost their jobs. There’s a lot of despair. But people believe that Lula will deliver. I visited a new road camp in April; it had 400 people. A few weeks later it had 1,500 people.”

Fearful that they can no longer rely on the authorities, some landowners are organising private militias. When the government recently warned that it would disband these illegal armies the landowners turned to security firms, which are legal. In July a leading farmers” association said it had contracted US firm American Security to “coordinate the defensive actions” of 10,000 farmers.

Some landowners seem to be planning more than defensive actions. In June an anonymous pamphlet recommending three ways of assassinating MST members – burning, poisoning and shooting – was distributed in the small town of Sao Gabriel in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The pamphlet said: “These rats need to be exterminated. It will be painful, but strong medicine is needed for such a serious disease. We need to shed blood to show our courage.”

These events received scant attention from the media. Yet when Lula donned a red MST cap before the TV cameras while receiving 30 MST leaders in the presidential palace on 2 July, the event became a top news item. Commentators bitterly attacked him for endorsing the “illegal” actions of a “violent” movement.

The press reaction was even more frenzied when, in an unguarded moment while addressing a rally, MST leader Joao Pedro Stedile referred to the landless and their allies as “an army of 23 million people” that “will not sleep until it has put an end” to the 27,000 big landowners. The media reacted as if Stedile was calling for an armed insurrection. It seems clear that the landowners are deliberately attempting to create a mood of hysteria in which it will become much easier to blackmail the government into clamping down on the MST.

Lula is a skilful politician and may well be able to avoid the traps set by the landowners, even though many on the left fear he will make too many concessions to the rural lobby. It will be far more difficult for him to resolve the profound contradiction at the heart of his government.

All over Brazil there are signs of a deepening social crisis, one that is affecting many other people besides the landless. Unemployment is rising in all the main cities. “I have lost all hope,” said former beer salesman Eduardo Tavares de Menezes to the Folha de S Paulo newspaper. He has given up looking for a job, because he can”t afford the bus fare to the centre of Rio de Janeiro. “Two months ago I gave up my only leisure activity, which was to take my wife and three children to have lunch with my mother on Sundays. You have to catch two buses to get to her house, and we can”t afford the fares.” On the outskirts of Rio wood fires for cooking are reappearing; people can no longer afford bottled gas.

The growing poverty is a direct result of Lula’s decision at the beginning of his presidency to impose even tougher monetary policies than those adopted by his predecessor. His intention, understandable enough, was to avert a financial crisis resulting from investors and speculators pulling billions of dollars out of Brazil. “[That] would have spelt disaster for the whole term,” commented Lula adviser Luis Dulci. The tough policies reassured investors (though Brazil’s credit rating has started to decline once again, as bankers increasingly doubt Lula’s ability to be quite tough enough). But the economy was forced into recession as a consequence.

Today there is a groundswell of opinion that economic policy must change. Tarso Genro, the coordinator of the Social and Economic Development Council (the body set up by the government to help build consensus on reforms), recently consulted different sectors of society for their views on the issue. He found a consensus for the need to reduce interest rates and increase public investment in infrastructure.

Many ministers are buzzing with new ideas – employment programmes, anti-corruption drives, environment protection, and so on – but all want more money. Agrarian reform minister Miguel Rossetto told Lula bluntly at the end of July that he needed a threefold increase in his budget to settle 60,000 families on land this year – something that Lula himself had already promised the MST.

Even Lula’s own advisers have drawn up a confidential report asking for the fiscal policy to be subordinated to the demands of national development, job generation and social policies geared to reducing violence.

The clamour for more expansionary policies is getting louder. Yet, such a shift would almost inevitably lead to some kind of rescheduling of the country’s debt, which has become a voracious monster devouring larger and larger sums of public money.

Brazil’s most famous economist, 83-year-old Celso Frutado, recently declared that sooner or later Brazil will have to declare a moratorium on its foreign debt as a means of regaining some bargaining power. Yet finance minister Antonio Palocci fears that a conflict with creditors would inflict serious damage on the economy, particularly as Brazil is still heavily dependent on foreign finance.

The options are becoming stark: either the government will have to dash the hopes of millions, or it risks confrontation with creditors – domestic and foreign – who could catapult Brazil into economic chaos. For all Lula’s skill, it is a difficult circle to square.Sue Branford is co-author, with Bernardo Kucinski and Hilary Wainwright of Politics Transformed: Lula and the Workers” Party in Brazil (Latin America Bureau, £6.99)

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself