LS: Recent years have seen an explosion of struggles in Latin America. Alongside workers and the urban poor, rural movements have played a key role. Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST) is the largest and most successful of these, organising a series of dramatic land occupations. What has the MST achieved through these struggles?
JPS: The MST’s most important achievement has been to organise the poor in the countryside. In Brazil there are five million landless workers, the poorest layer of rural society.
We have won land for 500,000 families, some three million people. These families are still fighting on other fronts – for food sovereignty [control over the way food is produced and sold], education and to change the existing agricultural model.
There are also 150,000 families currently occupying land or camped out on roadsides. They are in permanent conflict with the big landowners or the government.
Brazil’s elite accept that people organise to beg or to get votes for them. What they fear is the poor acting on their own ideas. If the landless do not organise themselves, nobody is going to resolve their problems, not even a left wing government.
Has the MST worked closely with other social movements and sectors?
We have learned from those that fought before us that we must be more united and generous, and less sectarian. We learned that our strength does not come from saying that our ideas are best, but from our ability to organise more people towards a common aim of changing society.
That’s why in Brazil, Vía Campesina [the international peasants’ network] is made up of several movements.
We also participate in the social movements and the big forums, such as the World Social Forum.
Many hoped that when the Workers’ Party government under President Lula took power in 2003 it would bring change. But the MST has complained that the plight of those living on the land has hardly changed.
People voted for Lula because they believed he was against neo?liberalism. However in order to guarantee being elected Lula allied with neo-liberal sectors of the Brazilian bourgeoisie and created an ambiguous government.
On the one hand there are right wing neo-liberal ministries. On the other there are those, such as the ministry for agrarian reform, that were given to the left. The result has been a constant fight in society and with the government.
Many landless workers thought that the solutions to their problems would come quickly after Lula was elected, but that hasn’t happened at all. Only social organisation and struggle can achieve change in Brazil or anywhere else.
We hope that after the next elections there will be stronger left forces, and if Lula doesn’t bring change, we hope to see the rise of mass struggle again.
In Bolivia the radical president Evo Morales recently nationalised gas and oil. Has this had an impact in Brazil?
Nationalisation is a very positive measure because it proves that another way is possible. It is the Bolivian people’s right to use their natural resources to combat social problems.
At the same time, we shouldn’t forget the context in which the nationalisation is taking place. I notice that in Europe people talk about how changes are taking place in Latin America. Yes, there have been changes, but they are not as deep as people imagine.
Luckily, the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela have given signs of hope for the Latin American people. But we are still not faced with a large scale popular mobilisation either in Venezuela or Bolivia.
But haven’t movements in countries such as Bolivia brought down presidents?
True, but it is very easy to bring down a president. What is difficult is to build a national development project based on the interests of the people and in opposition to neo-liberalism and imperialism.
We need the social movements to build up permanent organised forces.This still doesn’t exist in any Latin American country.
Chavez has called for discussion of a project that he describes as “endogenous development”. He realises that it’s not enough to just say bad things about the gringos.
We need a project that tries to answer questions such as how are we going to organise our alternative economy? How are we going to find jobs for everyone? How will we distribute income? What will we produce? If you only give speeches, you won’t fool people for long.
Is the project you are are describing a socialist project?
No, not yet. This is the challenge for us in Brazil. We are at one stage of a historical process. The aim is to build up the strength of the movement and make structural changes to society in order to march towards socialism.
We have learned from the experience of Eastern Europe and China that socialism is more than having a socialist government. Socialism means deep changes to economic structures, social relations and ideology in society.
We are far from achieving that. But we are going through a construction process taking us towards socialism.
In the international movement against neo-liberalism there are people who argue that we can change society without taking power. Is it possible to change society that way?
No, it isn’t, but power isn’t just in the state. Power is diluted into multiple forms beginning at home, and spreading to the community and society. It is in schools, churches and the media, as well as the state. That is something which we learned from [the Italian Marxist] Antonio Gramsci.
Changes must be made at the base of society. The criticism that we make against the orthodox left parties is that they see power as only being in the presidential palace. But just changing the palace’s occupant does not resolve society’s fundamental problems.
At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of seeing the problem as just in my family or village and that we don’t have to worry about the government.
We need socialist people’s governments, but based on political consciousness and participation. So Morales has an advantage over Chavez. The main force backing up Chavez is the army and occasional mass mobilisations.
In Bolivia, however, there have been 15-20 years of grassroots people’s power among peasants, indigenous people and miners. That experience is going to guarantee that Morales’s government will involve participation and control by people from below. That makes it possible for change to be achieved.
Organisation that grew out of the mass struggles of the rural poor
Brazil has the most unequal distribution of land in the world, with 2 percent of the landowners controlling 46 percent of the land suitable for growing crops.
The MST grew out of mass struggles against the military dictatorship of General Geisel in the late 1970s. It was officially founded in 1984. Progressive sections of the Catholic church played a key role in its creation.
MST activists have occupied unused land to establish cooperative farms and built schools and clinics. There are now 1,800 schools on MST settlements.
The movement in Brazil has helped to set up the first international network of rural labourers’ movements in history, Vía Campesina, which now organises in 87 countries.
The MST has faced savage attacks from the police, judiciary and media. Some 1,600 rural workers have been killed in the last 20 years, including around 100 MST activists.
In 1996, the award winning Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado powerfully recorded the massacre of farm labourers demonstrating in the state of Pará.
The MST has expanded its activities to marches on the capital, urban occupations, destroying genetically modified crops and creating a university for rural activists.
For more information about the MST, go to their English language website: www.mstbrazil.org
For those wanting to find out more about the MST and the fight for land in the Brazil, a good starting point is Cutting the Wire, by Sue Branford and Jan Rocha. This book, written in 2002, was the first major account in English of the history and politics of the MST.