The New Revolutionary Peasantry

Latin America

The New Revolutionary Peasantry

The growth of peasant-led opposition
to neoliberalism

By James Petras


was invited to give one of the inaugural speeches at the Second Latin American Congress of
Rural Organizations (Congreso Latinoamericano de Organizaciones del Campo, CLOC) that took
place in Brazil November 3-7, 1997. There were approximately 350 delegates from
practically every country in Latin America (only Uruguay and El Salvador were absent). The
Congress marked a turning point in Latin American revolutionary politics as it signaled
the revival and dynamic growth of popularly organized, independent struggles to overthrow
the neo-liberal regimes and to create a humane and egalitarian alternative.

growth of peasant-led mass opposition to neo-liberalism is uneven. In some countries like
Brazil, where the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) represents hundreds of thousands
of farmworkers, the rural movement provides leadership to the national struggle. In other
countries like Chile, the farmworkers’ movement has not yet recovered from the savage
repression of the Pinochet years and is a marginal force even at local levels. One of the
key factors explaining the rising influence of peasant movements is their autonomy and
independence from electoral parties and guerrilla “commanders” where they were
merely “transmission belts” of policy.

second factor is their embrace of a national socio-political agenda. In discussions with
many peasant leaders at the CLOC conference (as well as in prior meetings over the past 5
years) the fundamental issue was “self-determination,” the idea that only the
farmworkers through their own organizations can liberate themselves. The FENOC in Ecuador,
the MST in Brazil and the Paraguayan Peasant Federation, all of which have played a major
role in shaping the national debate on agrarian reform, emerged from peasant organizing
from below, developed their own structures and leaders, and were not beholden to any

contrast, the Chilean peasant organizations are largely adjuncts of electoral party elites
(Socialist and Christian Democrats) who are part of a government coalition implementing a
neo-liberal agenda. These organizations have little capacity to organize and are beholden
to the state for their meager subsidies.

influence and power of peasant movements is evident:

  • In
    Ecuador the peasant and Indian movements spearheaded the movement that forced the
    resignation of President Bucaram, on corruption charges and attempts to impose an IMF free
    market agenda on the people.
  • In
    Brazil, the MST has settled over 150,000 families representing almost a million people on
    uncultivated lands through direct action—land occupation movements. Through actions
    in 21 states the MST has pushed land-reform to the center of political debate. One
    indicator of its success is found in recent polls in Sao Paulo (Brazil’s largest
    city) which indicate that over 75 percent of the population support land distribution
    favoring landless farm workers.
  • In
    Bolivia, the peasants, particularly the coca growing ex-tin miners, have led the struggle
    in defense of national sovereignty and recently swept the elections with their own
    candidates in the Cochabamba area.
  • In
    Colombia, the peasant-based guerrilla army, the Popular Army of the Revolutionary Armed
    Forces of Colombia, has extended its influence to close to half the rural municipalities
    in the country. While not strictly speaking a peasant movement since almost one-third of
    its recruits come from the town and cities, many of its programmatic demands are
    rural-centered: land reform, human rights in the countryside, unionization of farm
    workers, etc. With close to 15,000 mostly peasant combatants it is probably the most
    potent guerrilla army in the Third World today and gaining strength. One indication is the
    fact that the U.S. Defense Department has dropped the fiction that its multi-million
    dollar military aid program is directed toward fighting narco­traffickers. It publicly
    endorsed the shipment of arms to fight peasant insurgency.
  • In
    Paraguay, only a massive mobilization of peasants and students blocked a threatened
    military coup. Plummeting cotton prices have put hundreds of thousands of peasants on the
    verge of bankruptcy. Free market trade policies and state promoted agro-business exporters
    are undermining local food producers, inciting a cycle of peasant land occupations and
    violent military evictions.
  • In
    Mexico, the Zapatista movement (EZLN) has re-opened the question of Indian rights, land
    reform, and more fundamentally the whole NAFTA/free market policies promoted by Clinton
    and Zedillo. Without the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the signing and implementation of
    NAFTA would have passed as an elite ceremonial event. Since implementation of NAFTA began,
    over one million peasants have been ruined and tens of millions of salaried employees have
    had their incomes cut by half. The demands and critique of the EZLN resonate throughout
    the country.


The New Peasantry

contemporary peasant movements are not comparable to past movements, nor do they fit the
stereotype of local, traditional, illiterate peasants struggling for “land to the
tiller.” Most of the peasant and Indian delegates at the CLOC Congress were educated
(both self-taught and with at least six years of formal schooling) and aware of national
and international issues. The new peasant movements have a national agenda: they are not
solely concerned with rural issues. More specifically they are aware that land
distribution policies can only succeed with credit, technical assistance, and protected
markets. They recognize that political alliances with urban classes and organizations is
necessary in order to transform the regime. They are not simply “economic
organizations.” They are socio-political movements, struggling against the free
market policies of privatization, de-regulation, and export promotion. The rural movements
have formed political alliances with trade unions and have contributed to the organization
of urban slum dwellers. The general strikes that rocked Ecuador in February 1997, Brazil
in June 1996, Bolivia in December 1996 for example, were based on peasant-Indian-trade
union alliances.

the CLOC conference most of the delegates were between 20 and 30 years old. They were
fresh from national and regional struggles. The historic first Latin American Assembly of
Rural Women was held before the CLOC conference and attended by close to 100 delegates.
Over 40 percent of the delegates to the CLOC meeting were peasant women, mostly in their
20s to early 30s. This was an extraordinary change: at the previous CLOC meeting 3 years
earlier less than 10 percent of the delegates were women.

younger delegates fortunately had not passed through the sectarian leftist wars of the
1960s or 1970s. Their support for the Cuban Revolution was based on its resistance to U.S.
intervention and its progressive agrarian reform. Few, if any, took their “doctrinal
cues” from Fidel Castro. They “incorporated” Che Guevara or Fidel Castro to
particular national and social struggle. Hence the coca farmer delegate spoke of Che’s
anti-imperialism in the struggle against U.S.-DEA eradication policies. Fidel Castro was
cited as a forerunner of the Brazilian peasants struggle to occupy land and resist
eviction. Thus there is neither repudiation or iconization of past revolutionaries.

upsurge of the new peasant movements faces important challenges that were raised in both
the formal sessions and informal discussions. For example, one of the slogans of the
conference was “agrarian reform, anti-imperialism, and socialism,” yet the
representatives of the Guatemalan organization (CONIC) told me that it was impossible to
raise any of those issues in Guatemala. “The mass terror and the continual operation
of the paramilitary death squads still weigh heavily on the peasants.” The peace
accords signed by the guerrilla commanders left the genocidal generals immune to any
prosecution. The emerging electoral political system is still linked to the state
institution of violence (army, judiciary, and secret police) which have been only given a
facelift, renamed, their personnel reshuffled.

highest priority is to create an umbrella organization for the dozen or so peasant
organization that have emerged in recent years. We have to temper our activity as to not
endanger the precarious and very limited political space that we occupy,” one peasant
leader commented. U.S. AID has utilized its rural funding to create rival organizations to
the militant peasant movements and to encourage groups to think in terms of “projects”
not agrarian reform.


Culture and Revolution

issues, particularly Indian demands for territorial autonomy, recognition of their
religions, linguistics, and community-based economies were central issues raised,
especially by Ecuadorean, Bolivian, and Guatemalan delegations. One Bolivian peasant
leader spoke of the sacred and religious nature of coca production, which she engaged in
to support her family. The Guatemalan voiced a common concern of all the Indian-peasant
delegations for greater right of self-government.

became clear, however, in the course of the discussions was a profound difference between
these militants and the public figures that the Western mass media present as “Indian
spokes people.” For example, the Bolivians spoke disparagingly of the so-called
“Quechua-speaking vice-president” who talks to the Indians and works for the
rich foreigners. The Guatemalans were very critical of Rigoberta Menchu for her embrace of
symbolic “Mayan” cultural changes divorced from the larger political-economic
and human rights issues. And the Ecuadorean FONIC-I leaders spoke critically of two Indian
leaders of the umbrella CONAI movement who were co-opted by the corrupt free market
Bucaram regime. The leaders of the Indian movements at the CLOC congress were not falling
victim to the “cultural identity” politics designed to divide and co-opt local
leaders in order to undercut the movement’s demands for land rights.

new peasant movements have been deeply influenced by the social doctrines of the Church.
At one of the plenary sessions, Fray Beto, the Brazilian Catholic theologian, asked the
delegates how many had been influenced by religious teachings: over 90 percent raised
their hands. Popular religiosity, the fusion of biblical lessons, and religious values has
had a direct effect in stimulating the new generation of peasant leaders, along with
Marxism, traditional communitarian values, and modern feminist and nationalist ideas. The
organizational discipline, personal integrity, and moral commitment that infuses much of
the movement comes from their earlier religious background, even as many of the militants
have taken their distance from the conservative Church hierarchy and the Vatican.

success of the Latin American Assembly of Peasant Women was manifested by the
overwhelmingly favorable response to their proposals for equal presence in all levels of
the peasant organization (from international to local) and in all instances of the
agrarian reform process (from land titles to co-op leadership). The energies and
enthusiasm unleashed gave added vitality to the proposals for coordinated joint
continental action around peasant demands.

new militancy of peasant women was manifested in other instances. A delegate of the
Cochabamba peasant movement described the struggle of the coca farmers against the
U.S.-directed eradication campaign. “This year they have already assassinated several
of our members and one of our leaders. We have resisted and will continue to resist. I am
supporting my elderly mother and my only son on my four acres. We negotiated with the
government a pact in exchange for the eradication of 7,000 acres of coca production the
government promised to finance alternative economic activity, including a factory to
employ the displaced farmers. We have reduced coca production by 3,000 acres but they have
not even started to build the factory. They have tricked us again. Now they are
threatening to send the military to massacre us and eradicate all our sacred lands and
leave us in misery. I want to learn how to use a gun. Because I want to be able to be part
of the armed resistance when the Army invades.”


Militarization & State Repression

neo-liberal regimes and their backers in Washington have responded to the growing peasant
movements by demilitarizing the countryside: there are 40,000 soldiers in Chiapas, Mexico
in addition to at least 5 new paramilitary groups since 1995. In Colombia, the military
has armed scores of paramilitary forces, terrorizing and displacing several hundred
thousand peasants perceived as real or potential sympathizers of the FARC. In Peru, the
U.S.-backed military occupies three quarters of the countryside and President Fujimori
holds his press conferences and top strategy meetings in the barracks. In Bolivia the
military with U.S. DEA advisors has savaged the coca growing peasants and is saturating
the region for a major assault on over 40,000 families whose only livelihood is coca leaf

responsibility for the militarization of the Latin American countryside and the ensuing
violence is transparent. Clinton’s push for free markets is undermining local peasant
producers who are ruined by cheap U.S. corn and grain imports. The White House’s
financing of agro-business export strategies is converting the countryside into one big
plantation displacing peasant and Indian communal farmers. Those not displaced by the
market, those who decide to stay and organize or to grow alternative crops that are
marketable, are driven out by the U.S. trained and armed military and paramilitary forces.
It is abundantly clear throughout Latin America that peasant activists perceive the
Clinton administration as complicit with some of the most damaging economic policies they
have experienced. With Washington’s backing of the increased militarization of the
continent, Clinton may surpass Reagan’s bloody record of 275,000 dead Central
Americans in the 1980s.

the new peasant movements have grown, even against the repression of the new civilian
regimes. In Santa Carmen there had been a land occupation where peasants with their
machetes were clearing the land and feeding each other through a common kitchen. In August
1996, the Army invaded and killed three peasants, destroyed their crops and houses, and
drove scores of families off the land. Several months later the peasants re­occupied the
land and organized a national conference attended by over 1,000 people including students,
professionals, progressive businesspeople, and peasants from all over the country. They
formed a national coordinating committee for agrarian reform.

in Brazil in Para, 18 landless peasants peacefully blocking highways were butchered by the
military police under orders from the governor. A photographer videotaped the event. A
national outcry ensued. Massive demonstrations took place in Sao Paulo, Rio, and other
cities. Public opinion polls demonstrated overwhelming support for the MST. They organized
a march on the capital and were joined by over 100,000 people, including trade unionists
and urban slum dwellers. President Cardoso, who denounced the MST as an “anachronistic
movement” fighting outdated battles (like land reform), faced with the mass protests,
invited one of the leaders to the Presidential Palace to discuss the best way to implement
the reforms. The 15 member national leadership showed up to demonstrate that there is no
single leader and refused Cardoso’s offer to sign an agreement suspending land
occupations in exchange for settling 49,000 families camped on contested terrain. As Joao
Pedro Stedile, an MST leader, said later, “It is necessary to negotiate but never at
the price of demobilizing the movement. Otherwise you have nothing to negotiate in the

not all peasant movements are in a position to respond to death-squad repression. A
peasant leader from Colombia at the Congress told of the systematic extermination of
peasant activists and their families by paramilitary groups who suspect any proponents of
land reform or advocates of human rights as disguised guerrilla sympathizers because the
FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) also support those demands.

Peru, the Peasant Confederation of Peru (CCP) is in the process of regrouping forces,
battered by assassinations by the Fujimori regime, Sendero Luminoso the fanatical Maoist
sect, and the political divisions provoked by the Leftist electoral parties cannibalizing
members. In some regions the CCP has organized “rondas campesinos,” peasant
self-defense groups to resist paramilitary forces and the “exemplary actions” of
Sendero sectarians. Lopez and other peasants are critical of the trajectory of former
movement leaders who gain elected office. “The closer to parliament the further from
the people.”



create many problems for peasant struggles: the huge outside funding linked to pursuing
policies compatible with the free market; the focus on local projects rather than
structural changes (land reform); the emphasis on self-­exploitation and survival
strategies (self-help) instead of comprehensive, publicly funded health, education, and
housing programs.

leaders and activists have described how the NGOs competed with peasant leaders, divided
communities, and co-opted activists with their funds. A Brazilian activist told of efforts
by the women of the MST to formulate a common strategy at a Latin American Meeting of
Peasant Women. “We proposed a united strategy for agrarian reform, an active role in
the leadership in the land occupation struggles and confrontation with the repressive role
of the state. The meeting failed to come to an agreement,” she said, “because of
the manipulative behavior of the NGO professional women, who wanted to control the agenda
and limit it exclusively to international cooperation and to confine the struggle to
exclusively feminist issues which meant no support for agrarian reform, anti-imperialism
and anti-neo-liberalism.”

went on to describe these feminist NGO professionals as “authoritarian and with a
colonialist mentality; they have nobody behind them except their wealthy outside backers.”
An Ecuadorean peasant leader commented, “I have no objection to overseas NGOs funding
our land reform movement if that’s what they are willing to do. What is offensive is
their setting down their priorities and funding professionals from our country to come in
and undermine our struggles.”

have learned from the past that even well meaning progressive professionals have used
their support for peasants to build a political or lucrative professional career as a
foreign consultant or expert. That doesn’t mean that peasants are turning their back
on intellectuals or professionals. The main difference is that they want the intellectuals
to be resource people for the movements, rather than the movements serving the
intellectuals and professionals as sources for outside grants.


Rural-Urban Alliances

most promising aspect of the new peasant movements is their understanding of the limits of
strictly “peasant movements” confined to rural struggles. All of the major
peasant movements are making a concerted effort to build an urban base of support and to
coordinate rural and urban struggles. In Ecuador, FENOC is involved in the struggle to
elect a constitutional assembly, reflecting the interests of the urban and rural poor. The
Paraguayan Peasant Federation has formed an Agrarian Reform Forum including students,
professionals, and businesspeople. They have expanded their political horizons to oppose
free market capitalism and the narco-capitalist elite. In Bolivia the coca farmers
have formed a new electoral party, the Alliance for the Sovereignty of the People. It
swept to victory in all the coca growing countries, gathering over 60 percent of the vote
and electing Evo Morales to Congress.

Brazil the MST has begun a systematic effort to organize the giant favelas or slum
settlements that surround Sao Paulo, Rio, and other major cities. They have found great
receptivity among the favelados, mainly because of their successful rural struggles and
the fact that most favelados are recent emigrants from the countryside. The MST is not
only focussing on immediate demands for land titles and infrastructure (lights, water,
paved roads, public transport, etc.), but also on political education through leadership
training schools and the development of an anti-­capitalist perspective based on an
understanding of the exploitative nature of financial and real estate capital. They hope
to avoid the previous pattern where local leaders who led a courageous struggle, then got
themselves elected to the City Council, and subsequently built electoral machines based on
clientelistic politics.

MST sees their urban organizing project as part of a national political struggle. To that
end, they have formulated a program called “Project Brazil” which is based on a
reversal of all the major free market counter-reforms: the re-nationalization of basic
industries (petroleum, telecommunications, etc.), the socialization of the strategic
heights of the economy—banking, foreign trade and an integral agrarian reform, which
limits cheap exports and promotes linkages between cooperatives and industrial food
processing plants.

the cities is not an open road. There are obstacles: the urban middle class and even the
trade unions still have a patronizing view of the peasantry. Today it is the rural workers
who are challenging the traditional belief that the urban working class leaders are the
designated vanguard of historical change. Today’s peasant leaders are looking for an
alliance with urban workers, as well as the urban poor in the giant slums, but only on
terms of a common program in which agrarian issues share center stage. The old style
internationalism tied to a socialist fatherland has been replaced by a new voluntary,
decentralized, consultative internationalism in which diverse cultures flourish and common
struggles are being forged not by charismatic leaders but by the steady organizing and
everyday heroism of peasant women and men traveling all day and all night to the villages
of Guatemala, the highlands of Ecuador, the wide expanses of Brazil, teaching, learning
and creating a new revolutionary politics of social liberation and spiritual fulfillment.