Landless, Jobless, But Not Hopeless
More often than not, the land seizures have met with fierce police and paramilitary response on behalf of absentee landowners, with a death toll of 1,517 campesinos since 1988. The movement is a direct challenge to neoliberal policies that favor export-based agribusiness plantations and World Bank plans to privatize land reform. Under the Bank's proposal, campesinos would seek loans to purchase land at market prices, with no obligation by rich landowners to sell. Brazil has perhaps the greatest gap between wealth and poverty in the Americas, with 3 percent of the population controlling more than 60 percent of the arable land. About 25 million people are landless campesinos, no different from the Irish and other famine victims in centuries past.
The MST has been associated with the Workers Party (PT), which successfully elected Luiz In´cio "Lula" da Silva to Brazil's presidency last October. Lula is expected to encourage land reform and curb police repression. In the run-up to October's election and even at the Porto Alegre social forum, the MST lowered its profile as a gesture to the Workers Party, but the land occupations are expected to resume in the future.
The MST has been the vanguard of similar movements across Latin America as people, sensing the utter failure of institutions, take matters into their own hands. Not only is there widespread direct action on the continent to implement land reform, but in next-door Argentina, where the economy has collapsed, workers have taken over nineteen abandoned factories in Buenos Aires, unemployed people known as piqueteros are blocking roads to bargain collectively for jobs, many thousands have established a barter economy, and the popular cry is que se vayan de todos ("they all must go"), which is not an idle chant, since five presidents were forced to resign in a two-week period in December 2001. While fostering dreams of an anarchist's utopia, these actions simply reflect the powerful desire of ordinary people to survive the disintegration of the state and economy. Argentina was the poster child of corporate globalization only three years ago, but last week the government's official figures showed a poverty rate of 58.7 percent.
Electoral politics in Argentina seems bankrupt and clueless at the moment. While Argentina stumbles toward a national election that many people will boycott this April, independent trade unionists are organizing a political party, along the lines of the Brazilian Workers Party, to contest for power in future elections. The unique difference in Brazil is that the social movements of the disfranchised have helped propel Lula and the Workers Party to an astonishing national victory. What is the lesson? Can revolutionary direct action at the grassroots level bolster a mass political movement? Can Lula and the Workers Party remain closely linked with social movements like the MST and still retain middle-class and small-business support? Does a serious electoral strategy mean that resources and people power are diverted away from social movements? Above all, how can Lula's coalition challenge and reshape the official debate on globalization, from the property rights of absentee investors to the needs of landless laborers who talk of land, bread and freedom?
At this point, the MST and social movements are likely to benefit from Lula's triumph, not least from the surge of hope that an alternative to neoliberalism has been endorsed by a 61 percent democratic majority. But George Bush is not going to invade Iraq while abandoning the Monroe Doctrine toward Brazil. The US Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, has already warned that if Lula opposes Washington's "free trade" plans, he can go trade with Antarctica. If Lula's government is isolated and destabilized, the World Bank will have its way in blocking serious land reform. But if his government gradually advances, it could mean greater protection for millions of landless people taking radical action, and will accelerate similar political challenges in Argentina and elsewhere on the continent.
Solidarity with Lula and social movements in Brazil is thus an important challenge for the global justice movement. It is important that US progressives undertake a campaign to understand, explain and defend hopeful developments emerging there. The last time anything this stirring politically has happened in Latin America was perhaps the 1970 election of Salvador Allende in Chile. That alone should remind us that if another world is possible, its sudden appearance in Brazil cannot be taken for granted.