Talk given in Toronto, Oct 20 2003
[This is a brief talk Joao Pedro Stedile of the Movimento Sem Terra gave to a group of activists during a visit to Toronto. The address was made in Spanish, and it is reproduced from notes taken by Justin Podur]
The MST started as a struggle for land. When we began our struggle we believed that land alone would be enough to get people out of poverty. We were wrong. We learned that the enemy was not just the large estates. We learned that there are other fences besides the ones that kept campesinos off of the land. We learned that the lack of capital is a fence. We learned that ignorance, a lack of knowledge, is a fence. We learned that international capitalism and its multinational corporations are fences as well. It is important to understand these fences.
If you’ll permit me I’d like to give you a bit of Brazilian history to help understand this. Brazilian society is in a historical crisis. We had 400 years of agro-export ‘development’, which was no development at all but exploitation. In our case the exploitation was made far more brutal because of slavery. At the end of the 19th century that model reached a crisis point and was replaced by a model that you could call ‘dependent industrial development’, after one of my teachers and mentors, Ruy Mauro Marini. It took some time, about 40 years, to adjust and change models. The new model produced a tremendous amount of wealth. It brought Brazil into the industrialized world. But it left the people in poverty and misery.
Dependent industrial development itself reached a crisis point by the 1980s. There were many effects of the crisis but one of them was the mass movement to overthrow the military dictatorship that was the instrument of this model. After 20 years of dictatorship we rebuilt our organizations. The unions, the union central was rebuilt. The MST came about as an expression of the will of the campesino to struggle for the land. We had to rebuild all of this because the dictatorship had destroyed all of the social organizations.
In this surge of popular movements, we confronted the ruling class in 1989 with Lula’s first presidential campaign. We proposed a popular, democratic alternative to the model we had lived and we found ourselves in a serious confrontation. We were beaten, and the ruling class imposed neoliberalism.
The agenda of neoliberalism was to subordinate the Brazilian economy to international capital. The nature of international capital had changed as well. Today, capital isn’t even so interested in exploiting cheap labour and resources. Instead, it is finance capital with purely financial aims: to enter a country, to privatize state enterprises, to earn speculative profits. But the past twelve years of neoliberalism neither solved the problems of the country nor ended the crisis of the 1980s. Instead, the economic and social crisis deepened.
In the case of agriculture, the process of transnationalization of agricultural investment in agro-industry and seeds changed the agricultural economy. That made things difficult for the MST: under neoliberalism, there is no room for small-scale agriculture, local production for the internal market. What happens to agrarian reform under these circumstances? Under neo-liberalism, 900,000 families lost their land. 2 million lost agricultural jobs. Land concentration reached extraordinary levels. Just for a single example, one highway construction company owns 4 million hectares of land.
In other sectors, the statistics are even worse. We have 22% unemployment. 60% of the employed are in the informal sector. The unions are weak. There is an ideological crisis in all sectors, because part of neoliberalism is an ideological assault. It may have traded the combat boots for the ballot boxes and rifles for TV sets, but the intent is the same – to impose an economic model on people.
There are two reasons why the Worker’s Party (PT) won the elections last year. First, because God is Brazilian. Second, because the ruling class divided. According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, the elections of last year were historically unprecedented. Why? This is the first time in history that a party of the left won an electoral victory while the social movement was in decline.
So, here we are in October 2003. The Left won the elections, but without changing the balance of forces in society. It’s like driving on a rotary intersection in Mexico. In Mexico they have rotaries instead of intersections, so you can drive around and around in circles. That’s what is happening in Brazil today. There are three exits being offered, but we keep going in circles.
The first exit is to just continue on the road of neoliberalism. To accept the FTAA, to follow the IMF and the World Bank, to not stand up.
Some other sectors want a kind of recycled neoliberalism. That’s the second exit. Don’t confront the United States, adopt a kind of ‘FTAA-lite’, try to blunt its force somehow.
And the third exit is to rebuild the democratic project. To reorganize on the basis of the internal market, redistribution, agrarian reform, economic reconstruction.
The complexity is that the social forces are divided in 3. In the Worker’s Party itself there are all 3 tendencies. Those who continue to defend neoliberalism say they are doing so on a tactical basis, it’s temporary. They are actually ashamed to be defending it. But the problem is that it is a 3-way tie. None of the tendencies is strong enough to impose its will on the others.
This is partly because of an ideological crisis on the left itself. We ourselves are unsure of the exit. The MST is trying to create some coordination, to stimulate the struggle and the mass movements. The agrarian reform struggle is more complex now. It’s not just about land redistribution any more. The whole agricultural model has to change, and we have to accelerate the struggle.
So there is this dispute of these three different projects. The result is that every small-scale local struggle turns into a metaphor for this 3-way struggle of social projects. Every small issue becomes very politicized, very quickly. I can give you two examples.
In July, the MST had a meeting with Lula. The press came, and Lula put an MST cap on in front of the cameras. This was a typical gesture, but the bourgeoisie went crazy. There was a 2 month-long media assault, and the opposition in government even invoked an emergency national commission! A national commission is something only done in very grave circumstances, so it was very remarkable that they went to these lengths.
Another example is when the movement of the homeless occupied a Volkswagon plant. At first there were 300 families involved, who occupied the plant at night. But the state of misery and poverty in the country is such that within 24 hours it grew to 4500 families. Again, the bourgeoisie went crazy. It was on the front page of all the newspapers, with headlines like “Stop the Anarchy Now!”
Each moment has become a political battle. There are so many small battles but we have to remember the larger ones too, the FTAA, the battle against genetically modified organisms, the battle against the WTO. If you were to ask me, how can North Americans help, that’s what I would say. Stop the FTAA, stop the GMOs, stop the WTO. If you do that, we will have the possibility of moving forward. We can no longer move forward from land alone.
Question and Answer Session
Questioner: Can you tell us something about indigenous movements and struggles in Brazil?
Stedile: Very briefly – the indigenous struggle is similar to our own. We all defend their sacred rights to the land, but indigenous movements, even internally, are facing the same 3-way struggle. Neoliberalism wants their lands. There are at least 16 areas of open conflict between the indigenous and landowners and latifundistas. The government seeks a ‘negotiated solution’ in these circumstances, which is code for the indigenous getting screwed. One of the most emblematic conflicts is Raposa do Sol, on the border with Venezuela. This state is more than 1/3 indigenous land. The governor is a corrupt, right wing thief – and he has joined the Worker’s Party! This is a real danger to the indigenous.
I believe that one does not ask for solidarity, but I do think that international solidarity and pressure to shame Lula into protecting the government’s constitutional commitment to indigenous rights is very important and can make a big difference here. The government has a theoretical commitment to indigenous rights, but we have a saying that you can find the devil in between theory and practice.
Questioner: What is the relationship between the military and the government in Brazil?
Stedile: The military has actually been affected by neoliberalism as well. Under neoliberalism, there’s no need for sovereign militaries. The US would rather control and coordinate the militaries of the hemisphere itself. So some of the more forward thinking sectors of the military joined us in our struggle against the FTAA. They are thinking about protecting the Amazon, the water resources. It’s strange: in the state where I’m from, Rio Grande do Sul, we’ve been raised to fear an Argentine invasion. The ghost of Argentine invasion was always raised to frighten us as children, and we have many bases on the border with Argentina. Today those bases are picking up and moving inland, into the Amazon, and some in the army are even saying that if there is a war Brazil has to prepare for in the distant future, it is a war with the US.
Questioner: How do you hope the FTAA negotiations will turn out?
Stedile: The 3-way struggle I described includes the FTAA. The capitalists want to join, they want a marriage with US capital. Another sector seeks an ‘FTAA-lite’, claiming that this is ‘tactical’. But we fear that it’s not a tactic, but a strategy. Then there is us, who are totally against.
Those in favor of FTAA-lite want FTAA to affect only commerce (not investment or services), and this only conditional on the US opening its markets to agricultural products. We believe this is very dangerous. It has gained time, but if the US does decide to open its markets we will gain very little (some small increases in sugar and orange exports) and lose a great deal. It’s a trap.
Part of our struggle against the FTAA is to demand transparency. We say, invite the opposition to debate. Have debates on television, not on the internet where only 2% have access. Produce teaching material for the schools and universities, and whatever the deal is – FTAA or FTAA-lite – it must be ratified by a plebiscite. The government has accepted the idea of a referendum, but not a plebiscite. In Brazil these are different things. A plebiscite is before the fact, whereas a referendum would be after the agreement was signed. We are for a plebiscite, not a referendum.
Questioner: Now that the left is in power, there is a complicated relationship between the movement and the government. What advice would you give for a movement that wants to keep its autonomy?
We have had autonomy from the beginning, with the Worker’s Party. It’s part of our tradition. We know that co-optation is a frequent danger, but we are not going to be fools. The PT knows we are not fools. We are not going to be a front for a party.
But since the PT has come to power we have adapted our struggle a bit. We used to occupy the public offices of the agrarian reform agency, in the days when Cardoso was in power. But now we occupy roads, estates – there is a different focus because the government is no longer our enemy. But we must never forget that our force comes from the organized people, not from the government. And that lesson must be extended even in our own organization, where we don’t want the grassroots to be led by the leadership. We want people at the local level to be able to act without consulting the national leadership if necessary.
Questioner: Some have praised Lula for being less ‘confrontational’ than Chavez, arguing that Chavez’s confrontation with Venezuela’s elites has brought a great deal of misery down on Venezuela’s poor with little benefit. Do you think Lula has had good reasons to be more cautious? Or do you think he is going too slowly, compared to Chavez?
Stedile: First of all, it’s important to be clear that these are totally different cases. But I believe that if Chavez has been hit much harder than Lula, it isn’t because of his leftism, but because he has more oil. Nor is it easy to say where reforms are occurring faster, Brazil or Venezuela. What we can say is that in Venezuela there is a resurgent mass movement, which is not the case in Brazil. If we had a mass movement on the loose in Brazil, Lula would make Castro look like a right winger. That’s not a joke. We saw what a resurgence of the movement could do in Bolivia, a country of 8 million people. Imagine Brazil, with 170 million, 60% in poverty. If 100 million Brazilians went in one direction, the earth would shake.
Questioner: What do you think of what’s just happened in Bolivia? About the many movements against neoliberalism throughout Latin America? Do you think that some of the alternatives being proposed, like Mercosur, are genuine alternatives?
Stedile: You should come to Latin America. Your eyes will tell you much more than I can. In Bolivia there is a resurgence of the mass movement. There has been a crisis in the economy since the betrayal of the revolution of 1952. In the 50 years since there has only been the emergence of a lumpenbourgeoisie that has appropriated the vast resource wealth, leaving the population – well, in shit. So they are right, Morales and Quizque, the two principal leaders, Morales of the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) and Quizque of the indigenous Pachakuti, the problem won’t be solved with the new election that the new president Mesa is calling for. It will only be solved with a new development model that will bring the people out of misery. Their good fortune is in having some mineral wealth. Their bad luck is that they are small and have no outlet to the sea.
As for the rest of Latin America, neoliberalism has put all countries in a crisis. People have tried to use voting to get out of it – they did that in Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia. The lesson is that elections are not enough. Look what happened in each of these countries. In Peru, nothing. In Ecuador, the US turned Lucio Gutierrez around completely. You should watch Ecuador, by the way. Get ready to go there, because there is going to be another Bolivia there. But elections are not enough. There has to be a mass movement that can change the entire model.
Is Mercosur an alternative? It’s no alternative to the FTAA. Brazil uses it as a negotiating tool. But it’s already undermined: the US has purchased Uruguay for less than the price of a 5-star hotel. Venezuela has proposed a very interesting project for Latin American integration, called ALBA, but it is really too far ahead of Latin America’s movements. It is a good idea, but for now it is politically unviable.
[Mr. Stedile's actvities in Toronto were organized by the Centre for Research on Latin America at York University (CERLAC), the Transformative Learning Centre of OISE / U of Toronto, and the Sam Gindin Chair for Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.]