In January 1984, mass movements began to rise again in Brazil. The working class was reorganizing, accumulating organic forces. Underground parties, such as the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), etc., were already in the streets. We had won only a partial amnesty, but a majority of exiles had returned.
The Workers’ Party (PT) and the Central Workers’ Union (CUT) were taking shape, as well as the National Congress of the Working Class (CONCLAT) promoted by the communists, which later merged into the CUT. Broad sectors of the Christian churches expanded their work, laboring like ants to keep raising consciousness and building the cores of bases1 in defense of the poor, inspired by liberation theology. There was enthusiasm everywhere, because the dictatorship was being defeated and the Brazilian working class was on the offense, fighting and organizing.
Peasants in the countryside lived in that same climate, amidst the same offensive. Between 1979 and 1984, dozens of land occupations were carried out throughout the country. Posseiros,2 the landless, and rural wage workers lost their fear. And they fought. They did not want to migrate to cities like bullocks to the slaughterhouse (in the words of our dear Uruguayan poet Zitarrosa).
As the fruit of all that, we met in Cascavel, in January 1984, encouraged by the pastoral work of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), leaders of the land struggle in 16 Brazilian states. And there, after five days of debates, discussions, collective reflections, we founded the MST: the Landless Workers Movement.
Our objectives were clear. To organize a mass movement at a national level, which could raise the consciousness of peasants so that they would struggle for land, for agrarian reform (meaning broader changes in agriculture), and for a more just and equal society. We wanted, in short, to combat poverty and social inequality. And the principal cause of this situation in the countryside was the concentration of land ownership, known as latifundium.
We didn’t have the slightest idea if this was possible. Nor how much time would pass as we sought our goals.
25 years have passed. Much time. Those were years of many mobilizations, many struggles, and stubborn persistance, always struggling and mobilizing against the latifundia.
We paid dearly for that stubbornness. During the Collor administration, we were harshly repressed, with even a department specializing in the landless established in the Federal Police Bureau. Later, the victory of neoliberalism of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government signaled a green light for the latifundistas and their provincial police to attack the movement. And in a short time we had two massacres: Corumbiara and Carajás. Throughout those years, hundreds of rural workers paid with their own lives for the dream of free land.
Pedro César Batista, Marcha Interrompida
But we continued the struggle.
We held back the neoliberal project chosen by the Lula government. We had hope that the electoral victory could unleash a new rise of the movement of masses and that the agrarian reform would have a larger impetus behind its implementation. There has been no agrarian reform under the Lula government. On the contrary, the forces of financial and international capital, through their multinational corporations, have increased their control over Brazilian agriculture. Today, the greater part of our riches, the production and distribution of agricultural commodities, are under the control of transnational corporations. They have allied themselves with capitalist landowners and produced the agri-business model of exploitation. Many of their spokesmen rushed to announce in the columns of bourgeois newspapers that the MST was finished. Dead wrong.
Happily, the hegemony of finance capital and multinationals over agriculture did not manage to put an end to the MST. For one simple reason: agri-business does not have any solution for the problems of millions of poor people who live in the countryside. And the MST is the expression of those poor people’s will to liberation.
The struggle for agrarian reform, which earlier was based solely on occupying the land of latifundia, is now more complex. We must struggle against capital. Against the domination of multinational corporations. And the agrarian reform is no longer that classic tool: expropriating great latifundia and distributing them in parcels to poor peasants. Now, changes in the countryside, to combat poverty, inequality, and the concentration of wealth, depend on changes in not only land ownership but also the model of production. Now, the enemies are also internationalized businesses, which dominate world markets. This also means that peasants will depend more and more on alliances with workers in cities in order to advance their battle.
Fortunately, the MST has acquired experience in these 25 years: the knowledge necessary to develop new methods, new forms of mass struggle, that can resolve the problems of the people.
1 Small groups organized in cities and the countryside in Brazil, often at the initiative of radical Christian priests.
2 Peasants who have precarious land possessions, above all in Amazonia, who, nevertheless, do not have property titles.
João Pedro Stedile is a member of the National Coordination of the MST and of the Vía Campesina Brasil. The article originally appeared in the Brazilian left-wing monthly Caros Amigos in January 2009; it is available online in Portuguese at <alainet.org/active/28341> and in Spanish at <alainet.org/active/28342>. Translation and notes by Max Ajl. Ajl has written on Latin American politics and economics for the Guardian, NACLA, and the New Statesman and blogs at Jewbonics.