Over the past 30 years, Brazilian governments—both military and civilian—have
proclaimed the need for “agrarian reform” but have resisted implementing
an effective policy. INCRA (National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian
Reform) the federal government agency in charge of land distribution has
pursued a policy of settling landless families in distant frontier lands,
usually distant from markets, in infertile, malaria-infested land. During
its 30 years of existence, INCRA has settled less than 7 percent of the
landless rural families, 331,276 out of 4 million and the majority of the
settlements were initiated by MST (the rural landless workers movement)
organized occupations, which were later legalized by INCRA.
Most Federal and State agricultural resources have been allocated to subsidize
and promote agro-business and large export-oriented farmers. The promotion
and financing of large agro-export farmers has been dubbed “agricultural
modernization” by both the military and the current Cardoso regime. Agricultural
“modernization” has been a key component of the Cardoso regime’s neoliberal
strategy and has led to massive displacement of small farmers and rural
workers from the countryside as well as the growing militancy of rural
workers and increasing influence of the MST. As a result, the countryside
has been the hardest hit sector of the economy and the center of opposition.
Cardoso’s restructuring of the economy has met with only sporadic and ineffective
opposition among urban trade unions (like the CUT) and the parliamentary
opposition (Workers Party, Communist Party of Brazil, etc.). On the other
hand, in the countryside, major confrontations have taken place. Large-scale
struggles have been an ongoing reality. Cardoso’s political offensive,
featuring the massive privatization of lucrative mines, telecommunications,
energy (and other key industries), his deregulation of financial markets,
the liberalization of trade and capital flows has severely eroded the economic
base of nationalist populist constituencies composed of local producers
and industrial workers. Cardoso’s urban offensive is based on a coalition
of overseas bankers and industrialists, local big agro-business, landlord,
financial, and manufacturing interests. The large-scale, long-term transformations
envisioned by Cardoso and their negative socio-economic consequences for
rural and urban workers, small farmers, and local producers were perceived
early on by the leadership of the MST.
The MST response to Cardoso’s offensive was to launch its own offensive
in the countryside in early 1995. The MST organized an escalating campaign
of land occupations, involving an increasing number of families, throughout
Cardoso’s tenure of office.
The response of the Cardoso regime to the MST offensive shifted over time.
In the beginning, his administration tried to ignore the Movement, minimize
its significance, labeling it a “historical anachronism.” Subsequent to
a historical 100,000-person demonstration in Brasilia convoked by the MST
in 1996, Cardoso shifted tactics, opening negotiations and attempting to
co-opt the Movement by offering to set a quota on land recipients in exchange
for demobilizing the Movement. By demobilizing the Movement, Cardoso hoped
to get the upper hand in carrying out his strategic policy of creating
a high tech export agricultural sector based on large-scale, agro-industrial
complexes linking local big landowners with overseas, mostly U.S. agro-industrial
The MST entered negotiations but insisted that under no conditions would
they agree to stop occupations of unproductive lands, as the number of
farm workers without land—almost four million families—could not have their
basic needs met via the limited quotas fixed by the Cardoso regime. The
MST offensive went into high gear in 1996, with a record number of land
occupations and families. The Movement’s land occupation strategy combined
legal-constitutional tactics, extra parliamentary action with an inclusive
style of coalition politics that brought together church organizations,
human rights groups, urban trade unions, parliamentary parties, local civic
groups, and municipal officials. The MST relied on Constitutional clauses
calling for the State to expropriate uncultivated land and redistribute
land to the landless rural labor force and to finance the new rural settlements.
Within this legal constitutional framework, the MST was able to build broad
coalitions that supported their peaceful, well-organized land occupations.
With majoritarian support of public opinion in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro,
and other major cities, the MST was able to neutralize repression by the
central government. However, at the State and local level, Cardoso’s allies
among state governors, local officials, and landlords organized violent
repression and judicial processes to destroy the growing appeal of the
MST. The landlords organized in the UDR (Uniao Democratico Ruralista: Rural
Democratic Union) and through their influence among state governors and
local officials launched a violent right-wing counter-offensive, with the
political and propagandistic support of the Cardoso regime. This culminated
in April 1996 with the infamous Massacre of Eldorado de Carajas (in the
State of Para) where 19 landless workers were massacred by the Military
Police ordered by the state governor to repress a peaceful protest march
of landless workers. Altogether, over 163 rural workers have been assassinated
in the first 4 years of the Cardoso regime.
The massacre at El Dorado intended to intimidate the movement had the opposite
effect; public opinion turned overwhelmingly in favor of the Landless Workers
Movement and the MST responded by launching a new wave of land occupations
throughout the country. The Cardoso regime forced on the defensive and
politically isolated, attempted to take advantage of the new land settlements
by claiming credit for them. This government ploy failed however, and families
occupying land doubled. While the government was successful in selling
off strategic sectors of the economy, deregulating the financial markets
and lowering trade barriers, the countryside became increasingly restive.
The lowering of tariff barriers meant cheap food imports; the dismantling
of state subsidies and support for credit and technical assistance undermined
local small producers. During the first four years of the Cardoso regime,
over 400,000 small farmers went bankrupt and were driven off the land or
converted into landless laborers or employees of the big agro-industrial
export enterprises which were the centerpiece of Cardoso’s so-called “agricultural
modernization export strategy.”
In 1996, small farmers following the example of the MST began to mobilize
and organize, particularly in the South of Brazil. By 1997, a new mass
organization emerged, the Movement of Small Farmers (MPA). The MPA began
to borrow the direct action tactics of the MST, blocking roads, occupying
government offices, and engaging in large-scale demonstrations in state
capitols. In August 1999 over 15,000 heavily indebted large, medium, and
small farmers demonstrated in Brasilia demanding forgiveness of 40 percent
to 60 percent of their debts. Cardoso offered to forgive 10 percent to
20 percent of the farm debts—particularly of the large farm owners. Under
pressure, the Cardoso regime combined concessions to the MPA—easing credit
and offering partial debt forgiveness—while at the same time reducing the
Federal budget allocations for family farmers to meet IMF-WB fiscal targets.
As a result, two weeks later, farmers and farm workers joined trade unions
and leftist political parties in a huge 100,000-person protest in Brasilia
denouncing Cardoso’s austerity budget.
Faced with State intransigence the MST turned toward building politico-social
coalitions with urban movements and intellectuals, through a national political
campaign, the Consulta Popular, a program of alternative development that
combines nationalist, protectionist, and state-directed industrial programs
with agrarian reform and mass participation in the political process. The
“new turn” of the MST—its attempt to break out of a strictly “rural framework”—led
to new urban initiatives, organizing favela residents in some of the major
cities, including Sao Paulo, Rio, and elsewhere. The urban organizing led,
in some cases, to the occupation of landed estates near some of the major
cities, like the Nuevo Canudos settlement, less than one hour from Sao
Paulo, which included unemployed construction and metal workers. The Cardoso
regime and the State Governor dispatched military police to dislodge the
urban squatters, arguing that the land in Nuevo Canudos was “cultivated.”
In reality being within one hour of Sao Paulo it was valuable land for
urban speculative purposes. The desperate situation of the urban land settlers
led some to hijack two trucks carrying pasta and beef, which in turn led
to a police raid on the settlement and arrest of several activists.
By the beginning of 1999, the Federal Government and its political allies
in the state governments decided to abolish the existing constitutionally
mandated state financing of land expropriations. The Cardoso regime introduced
a World Bank scheme to create what it dubbed as a “market agrarian reform.”
The Federal Government shifted funds from the Agrarian Reform Institute
(INCRA) to a “Land Bank.” INCRA’s overall budget was reduced by 53 percent,
from 1.9 billion reales to 1 billion; INCRA’s funding for land expropriation
was reduced from 600 million reales to 200 million reales; INCRA’s special
line of low interest credit to newly formed co-ops was ended. The drastic
cut in INCRA’s budget meant that peasant land squatters would not have
any funding to farm the uncultivated land that they occupied. Instead the
government proposed to buy land from the landlords and sell it to individual
farmers who then would be obligated to secure credits to finance production.
The result would be a heavily indebted small farmer class facing unequal
competition with cheap food imports. The result would be almost certain
bankruptcy and the buy back of the family farmers’ land by commercial farmers
or land speculators.
The economic non-viability of the “market agrarian reform” is fairly obvious.
The Federal Government’s purpose however, is political—to eliminate the
possibility that the MST’s land occupations would lead to successful productive
cooperatives (as they have been in most instances around the country).
The second purpose of Cardoso’s strategy is to entice landless workers
with the offer of land settlement and access to credit, thus dividing the
movement and creating strata of pro-regime supporters among small farmers.
The early experiences of “market agrarian reform” however are not promising.
Heavily indebted farm owners of all sizes and lines of production have
launched a series of major demonstrations demanding debt forgiveness, in
the face of the massive devaluation and the decline in income and demand.
Cardoso’s cutbacks in funding are evidenced in the growing number of landless
families who have occupied uncultivated land and whose claim for expropriation
has not been attended. During the first four months of 1999 22,000 families
organized by the MST and the Confederacion Nacional de Trabalhadores na
Agricultura (CONTAG) occupied over 155 large estates. By mid-1999, there
were over 72,000 families—over 350,000 farm people—“encamped” on land waiting
for Federal action. Some of the families were living in camps up to four
years. By withholding Federal funds, the Cardoso regime hopes to discourage
the land occupiers and to undermine the support of the MST. The government’s
usual answer for the unemployed and destitute farm workers—that they should
migrate to the cities—rings hollow with 20 percent unemployment rates in
most large urban centers. Cardoso’s defense of the rural elite and negative
policy toward potential productive landless workers has heightened tensions
in the cities, which concentrate the new wave of displaced rural producers.
Another reason why the MST is increasingly involved in urban organizing.
In response to the government’s attack on the Constitution and the effective
dismantling of agrarian reform budgets and institutions, the MST has increasingly
turned to the political sphere. The thinking here is that what the landless
workers are winning in terms of popular support and land occupations, they
are losing in terms of state financing of newly established land settlements.
The national leadership of the MST is broadening its efforts in two directions:
it has signaled an increasing tendency to become directly involved in electoral
politics; it has increased its efforts to form national political coalitions
to directly challenge the government.
While these strategic shifts occur at the national level, and the Federal
government intensifies its effort to seize the political initiative from
the MST on the local and state level, Cardoso’s right-wing allies have
intensified their attacks on the MST. In the states of Parana, Para, Sao
Paulo, scores of MST activists and landless workers have been tortured,
beaten, and jailed on spurious charges. In contrast, notorious military
officials publicly videotaped murdering peaceful peasant protesters have
been exonerated, as was the case with the military officials who ordered
the massacre of Eldorado de Carajas.
The powerful links between landlords and the judiciary is demonstrated
by the fact that between 1985-99 of the 1,158 rural activists assassinated,
only 56 people were brought to trial and only 10 were convicted. As the
economic crises deepened throughout 1999 and unemployment soared, Cardoso’s
popularity plummeted and he was left largely dependent on the support of
the IMF-WB and overseas investors.
The IMF-WB pressure to slash public spending and to reduce the deficit
has heightened social polarization, and few productive sectors of the national
economy seem willing to sustain the regime. Faced with the regime’s dismantling
of the Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) the MST moved to broaden its alliance
in the countryside, working with small and medium-size farmers and their
organizations in common struggles against the Government’s credit and price
policies. The MST’s increased turn toward political action and social alliances
runs parallel to its continuing policy of direct action.
Several factors weigh heavily in shaping the new turn in MST policies.
First, the highly politicized nature of the judicial system evidenced in
the gross violation of normal judicial process by the judge in the trial
of the military officials accused of assassinating the 19 landless workers
in Para. Irrespective of the powerful evidence presented and of the jury’s
initial guilty finding, the judge’s intervention calling into question
the sufficiency of the evidence presented, and rejection of key eyewitnesses
demonstrated that without direct political influence it was impossible
to secure justice in the courts against the organized and politically influential
The second factor shaping the political turn of the MST was the dismantling
of the Agrarian Reform Institute and the practical elimination of funding
for new land settlements by squatters. The MST’s land occupation strategy
depended heavily on securing INCRA legal recognition, formal expropriation,
and funding to successfully launch production in the settlements of the
land squatters. Without INCRA funding, the land occupations organized by
the MST would be in severe financial straits, particularly in securing
seeds, fertilizers, farm tools and basic living arrangements. The Cardoso
regime, by cutting resources to INCRA and shifting resources to the Land
Bank, in clear violation of his constitutional mandate, established a new
political agenda that could not be combated by direct action—or at least
social action at the local or state level. Only political action aimed
directly at shaping national political power is capable of restoring funding
for the land settlements established through land occupations. Only national
political organizations are capable of countering the “privatized” land
reform and Land Bank promoted by the World Bank and implemented by the
The third factor influencing the new turn in the MST’s policy of broad
social alliances, was the deepening economic crises and the extension and
radicalization of demands of social sectors which were previously quiescent
or immobilized. Such is the case with small and middle-sized farm owners,
nationalist sectors of domestic industry, increasingly restive public employees,
and the growing mass of unemployed former private sector industrial workers.
The MST-launched Popular Consultation is directed at opening the door to
a “national convergence” among geographically and socially distinct social
classes, within and outside of the agrarian sector.
The fourth factor influencing the shift to national coalition politics
is precisely the devastating effects of Federal agricultural policy. The
free market politics, cheap imports, and relative decline in prices relative
to credit and input costs has led to a massive exodus from the countryside
of close to 5.5 million people between 1986-96. The rural census of 1986
estimated the rural population as 23.4 million people. By 1996 the rural
population had declined to 18 million.
Land concentration and landlessness in the Brazilian countryside has continued
to accelerate. In 1970, farming estates of over 1,000 hectares representing
.7 of the total farms owned 40 percent of the land; in 1996, 1 percent
of the landowners owning farms of over 1,000 hectares owned 45 percent
of the land. Over four million farm workers are without land. The decline
in rural population, and their flight to the periphery of towns and cities
is a major potential constituency for MST organizers, particularly those
who retain rural ties. The MST has attempted to organize unemployed rural
migrants for land occupations in the adjoining countryside with mixed results.
One of the most difficult problems is that most of the land closest to
the cities is at least partially cultivated, a pretext the government uses
to violently dislodge families occupying land. Within the narrowing political
limits of what is defined as non-cultivatable land, the MST has perceived
the need to engage in politics in order to broaden the basis for land expropriation.
While the MST has turned toward greater involvement in national politics
and coalition building at the national level, it has continued to organize
and occupy uncultivated estates in the countryside. In the first 6 months
of 1999, the MST organized 147 occupations involving over 23,000 families
thus keeping the pressure on the Government, in defiance of its “market
agrarian reform.” The MST is following a two-pronged strategy of continuing
grassroots organizing in the countryside and political alliances at the
national level. The key to the success of the rural-urban alliance is the
extension and consolidation of a powerful rural movement that serves both
as a point of support for the MST in its national negotiations as well
as a catalyst for the urban movements and parties to deepen their own involvement
in grassroots organizing.
The MST’s successful mobilizations and effective transformations of landless
workers demonstrate that a well-organized, politically conscious, and democratically
structured movement can successfully challenge the World Bank-IMF-neoliberal
agenda. The success of combining legal and direct action tactics in the
context of building public support and social allies with civil institutions
has allowed the MST to become the central focus of opposition to the Cardoso
regime. The retreat of the traditional Left parties and trade unions is
less a product of structural changes in the economy and more the result
of their internal political and organizational deficiencies.
The “objective conditions” in Brazil have been ripe for mass political
action. Nowhere is this more evident than in the countryside, where declining
incomes, liberalized trade policies, and increasing interest rates have
devastated producers, small farmers, and forced landless workers from the
countryside. The growth of landless workers, the decline of small farmer
agriculture, and the expansion of large landed estates have provided a
propitious terrain for the MST to expand its influence and heighten its
appeal. Its well-organized and successful land occupations and subsequent
organization of viable and productive agricultural cooperatives has attracted
favorable public attention, evidenced in opinion polls in the major cities.
The failure of the Cardoso regime to come to terms with the MST has led
it down the road of closer links with right-wing parties and landlord organizations.
Its commitment to the neoliberal agenda has led it to dismantle the previous
legal, political framework, which provided a modicum of reform in the countryside.
The escalation of the counter-reform efforts of the Cardoso regime have
in turn provoked a radical turn in the MST’s strategy—from a social to
a socio-political movement; from a primarily “rural sector” organization
toward a coalition partner of major urban movements and parties.
As J. Yves Martin argues, Cardoso’s strategy of marketization is accompanied
by the militarization of the countryside in a mutually complementary and
highly conflictual escalation of political confrontation. This was graphically
represented in the pages of the Financial Times: side by side were these
two articles, one entitled “Brazil Eases Captial Curbs to Lure Foreign
Investment, the other entitled “Three (Police Officials) Cleared of Brazilian
Killing.” Cardoso’s policies of appealing to foreign capital is closely
linked to his policy of state cutbacks and controlling labor, which in
turn entails greater repression, which inevitably entails greater impunity
for the repressive officials. Cardoso the “modernizer” has become deeply
enmeshed in the web of traditional oligarchic politics: foreign giveaways,
landlord alliances, regressive social policies, and military repression.
The weakening and decline of the Cardoso regime offers great opportunities
for the MST to politically capitalize on the new situation. The fundamental
problem is the weak and fragmented nature of the urban movements and parties
with which it seeks to unify forces. What is clear is that the MST has
recognized the limits of “movement politics” at the local level, even as
it has up to now scored impressive successes. The question is whether it
can be as successful in organizing a national political force in the murky
waters of urban parliamentary and trade union clientelistic politics.
James Petras teaches sociology at SUNY, Binghamton is a specialist on Latin