Thousands Of Peasants Protest Against Lula

In the biggest march ever organised by the powerful Movement of Landless Workers (MST), around 13,000 peasants, accompanied by workers from occupied factories, indigenous peoples and others, set out from Goiania, Brazil, on May 2 to demand that the government start making progress on its promises for agrarian reform. MST leader Jose Pedro Stedile told an April 28 press conference that the peasants, who expect to be joined by 90,000 others before they complete their 210 kilometre march to Brazilia, were aiming “to promote debate and create awareness of the need for agrarian reform”.

The march began only days after the Indigenous Rights Defense Forum (FDDI), which unites seven indigenous organisations and involves representatives from 89 different indigenous peoples, organised a 700-strong camp in the capital on April 26. The FDDI had released a statement on March 31 declaring the government “anti-Indian”, because it had failed to meet its pledge to officially recognise a number of new indigenous reserves. The declaration and the protest are both signs of the growing discontent against the current government.

This pledge was made by President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva and the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), before his 2002 election. The MST provided much of the PT’s support base then, and many viewed Lula’s election as a step towards breaking with neoliberalism and the old political order.

In the last two years, however, just 13 indigenous territories have been demarcated, an annual average lower than that under the previous government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The MST is world-renowned for its determined fight over decades — fending off state repression and organised violence from latifundistas (large landowners), whilst carrying out mobilisations and land occupations, helping to resettle 300,000 families as well as establishing numerous schools and literacy centres through Brazil.

With Lula’s 2003 inauguration, the MST declared a truce with the government, pledging to give it time to move ahead with its promises in the areas of agrarian reform and economic policies.

In November 2003, the MST signed a deal with Lula, in which he pledged to settle 430,000 families during his three-year mandate. To date, the Lula government has settled significantly fewer families than its conservative predecessor. Just 55,000 families have been settled in the last two years. According to Stedile, if every family that needed land was settled on 15 hectares, they would still only occupy half of the land currently unused.

Stedile made clear to IPS that “the march is not against the Brazilian government, but for agrarian reform and a change in economic policy”.

In a statement published on, Stedile commented “We know that in order to achieve agrarian reform, it is not a question of political will or the personal commitment of the president. It depends on the economic policy … We all know that the current economic policy is the continuation of the neoliberal policies of the previous government [of Cardoso].”

This is exemplified by the two billion reals (US$770 million) cut from the National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform budget, greatly inhibiting its ability to push forward with any serious mission in agrarian reform.

Stedile argues that the three obstacles in the way of moving forward with agrarian reform are: the state structures that are organised to respond to the interest of the rich; the influence of agribusiness; and economic policies that continue the trend towards the concentration of wealth, such as high interest rates, fiscal adjustment and priority on the export sector.

The problem is that unfortunately, as Plinio Arruda Sampaio put it in a February 8 interview with Radio Centenario “because the PT isn’t changing the state, the state is changing the PT”. Sampaio was one of the founders of the PT and is a well respected intellectual, who broke with the PT in January this year.

At its national assembly meeting on April 11, the PT leadership voted in favour of the “Basis for a Project for Brazil” platform, which entrenched the government’s neoliberal policies in the party’s platform. The platform argued that “fiscal equilibrium” and “economic stability” were essential pillars for Brazil’s economic development. This replaces the last party platform adopted in 2001, before the elections, which talked of a “rupture” with neoliberalism. Approved by 60% of the vote, the new platform will go to a December national party congress to be ratified.

On February 26, Hannah Wittman from Friends of the MST US, commented on the group’s website, , on the dilemma for the Brazilian left: “The confusion wrought by the multiple messages and directions emanating from the Lula government has served to fragment and dilute the solidarity of progressive social movements in Brazil.”

Sampaio noted that the problem for the left was that on one hand Brazilians “have a conservative alliance from above and below … a demobilised people, and the worst part of it is that Lula, when he got into government, worked systematically to demobilise the people, coopt the social movements, and neutralise the pressure from trade unionists. This has meant that the energy that could have created change, that could promoted change, was neutralised.”

Wittman pointed out, “The movements find themselves at a strategic crossroads — become opposition to the only government in recent decades that has had any favourable tendencies towards meeting the demands of rural social movements, retreat in order not to criticise, or re-organise, (re)mobilise and bring more people out onto the streets to pressure the Lula government to meet the popular demands.”

A minority of social movement, union and other progressive activists have already decided that the PT is not worth working within. This minority is significant: more than 100 PT militants, including leading unionists, intellectuals, liberation theologists, social movement activists and founders of the party, such as Sampaio, signed a “Time for a Break” statement at the World Social Forum (WSF) in January this year, calling for a split.

Explaining the reasons for the call, Jorge Martins, one of the initiators of the statement and a national executive member of the national trade union federation, CUT, said that the left had fought for the last two years thinking it could turn the government to the left, “but we lost every battle”.

A number of the signatories have joined the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), which was formed in June 2004, following the expulsion of three PT parliamentarians for their public opposition to the PT government’s cuts to public sector pensions. Yet, for now, it seems clear that a majority of the left have, like the MST, chosen Witman’s second option. The vote against the latest party platform was around 40%, indicating a large amount of opposition within the PT.

Also at the WSF, more than 350 activists declared themselves to be a public faction of PT “dissidents”, noting that although they would no longer accept party discipline, they believed there was still space for a showdown. The December national congress could be the site for this battle.

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