By Armando Chaguaceda
Fulfilling an old dream, I recently visited an encampment of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, where from June 17-19, 2009 I accompanied my colleague Cassio Brancaleone.
Dubbed the Oziel Alves Pereira Settlement, this camp is located in the defiant Governador Valadares municipality in the state of Minas Gerais, a site of the short-lived experience in agrarian reform initiated in 1964 by President Joao Goulart.
The members of this fortified community first occupied the land on August 23, 1994. Today it is the home to a nucleus of 20 active families, an additional 28 families who play a less prominent role, and 12 other young families recently on their own. In all, there are 400 people.
Between the daily grind of farm work, drinking a stiff sugarcane “cachaça” or playing a match of soccer, Cassio and I gave a talk on the legacy of the Cuban Revolution and emancipatory movements in Latin America (the address arose out of an interesting discussion with a well-informed and energized audience).
The culmination of our stay was the showing of the film “Land and Freedom,” on the anti-fascist struggle and land distribution in Republican Spain. From this beautiful and unforgettable depiction (to be narrated in detail in an upcoming article), today I want to share only a few brushstrokes.
Learning about the Landless Workers Movement (“Movimiento de Trabajadores sin Tierra,” or MST) is to draw closer to one of the greatest, most expressive and most organic Latin American social movements.
It originated in 1984 as an alliance between farmers organizations, rural workers unions and activists in the state of Paraná (southern Brazil) with the support of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a contingent of the activist National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB).
Along with the ruling Workers Party (PT), MST was born as a formative womb (of workers, intellectuals, left activists and elements of the popular and progressive church) within the mass movement confronting the military dictatorship.
With the electoral victory of Luis Inacio da Silva (“Lula”) and the Workers Party in 2002, great advances were expected in resolving the agrarian struggle. But thanks to the government’s widely implemented welfare-state approach (a source of its popularity), land hunger persists in Brazil – as does the repression of those demanding land, and ecological devastation and genocide on huge land holdings. Some 100,000 families still live in MST camps, among a universe of 4.5 million poor families in the Brazilian countryside.
In 2008 the MST celebrated its 25 years of existence, finally holding the congress that the national leadership had postponed given their unclear definition in the face of the Lula da Silva administration. In its final document, under pressure from the rank and file, the MST strategized the advance of their demands for land reform as being through new alliances with urban social struggles. At the same time, sharp criticism was made of the economic policies of the federal government.
In that settlement we met a group of highly politicized people capable of impressive lucidity in analyzing the local and global situation. They seasoned their assessments with contagious joy, plain language and identification with their standing as rural workers, while demonstrating a mystic bond with artistic practices (music, poetry) and popular religion. These are people who “despite being near the city, do not isolate themselves; they try to maintain a fluid relationship with urban life without losing their identity.”
As not everything is ideal, the comrades struggle daily with apathy, consumerism and conventionality. A youth who studied nursing in Cuba pointed out that “most of the youth are not actively committed, though they participate in some activities and live here (…) We active youths are in all fields (health, education, etc.). Sometimes when we take part in organizing activities they consider us old-timers if there’s not forró music from the northeast. But we continue battling and we’ve made progress.”
In debates over ideological and organizational processes within the MST, there emerged the demand to strengthen participation and commitment to local practices in the face of exhaustion, errors and hierarchization. A founder of the movement explained that “within the MST there exist two political cultures: the northeastern, more autonomous and combative than the southeastern, oriented toward conciliation with the state structures.”
This resident believes that “the MST was born centralized; people possess a hierarchical Catholic tradition that puts a great deal of trust in the authority of the priest, but lacks the political perception to demand accountability from their leaders (…)” Today, that same resident is hopeful that “we are in a moment of redefinition that can serve as an opportunity to reestablish the combative direction and course of the MST.”
I could talk about many things about my stay in the lands of Rio de Janeiro: the quality of that area’s universities, the beauty of its landscapes, its people’s contagious happiness. But without a doubt, my stay with the comrades of the landless movement – with their mixture of tender hope and sturdy commitment – was a transfusion of faith, necessary to build a future where a pluralistic and participative socialism that has an unavoidable love for nature, freedom and beauty.