Acting on Faith

September 25, 2007

IT'S BEEN HAPPENING NOW EVERY COUPLE of months. Hundreds of poor city-dwellers descend on the center of Sdo Paulo in buses, carrying their cloth banners and home-made cardboard posters. Men in frayed trousers and women in worn cotton dresses and scuffed rubber sandals, their faces worn and tired, carry babies while older children trail behind. Along the eight-lane Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo's banking Mecca lined by temples of smoked glass, marble, chandeliers and gilded giant doorways, company cars and limousines come to a snarling standstill as the ragged army marches to the state housing department, chanting "We Want Land." They are members of Sem Terra-landless, in Portuguese-organized by Brazil's Catholic archdioceses throughout the country. Sem Terra's strongest urban base is in the poor East Zone of Sdo Paulo. At one recent demonstration, the landless sat in the road in front of the housing office as a young woman in a long black dress-as 36 though on her way to a dance-and holding a microphone led the songs and chants. A smooth talking public rela- tions officer came out and began reciting lists of new housing projects, but the sem terra stayed firm, sweating in the hot sunshine, sharing out cups of water, until the housing department agreed to a meeting. Because of Brazil's worsening housing shortage-the deficit is now reckoned at 10 million homes-Sem Terra has become one of the country's most active movements. Beginning with protests, Sem Terra has gone on to organ- ize occupations of unused public or private land. Their hastily thrown up shelters are often demolished and they personally have been attacked by mounted police, 'but they have also had victories. On March 19, 1987, a thousand families organized by Sem Terra occupied an empty wasteland in the East Zone called Jardim SAo Carlos. Overnight, families measured out their plots with string, each 125 square meters. Some REPORT ON THE AMERICAShad only tents, while others, like Francisco Alves, a 52- year-old municipal employee, brought boards and planks to quickly knock up huts. The only water was from a stream at the bottom of a hill. There were scorpions in the undergrowth, and at night the mosquitoes were fierce. This was public land, so the government let them stay. The leaders of the occupation set up headquarters in a tent and began organizing distribution of food and water and medical assistance. Over the next months, as more fami- lies came and some left, the shelters became more perma- nent. The community built latrines, installed standpipes, and started a broom-making factory. Church groups were formed. Last year the government began building perma- nent homes on the site, of which 1,341 are now completed. For these families the fight was nearly over, but they are a small fraction amongst the 50,000 said to be on the housing lists of the Sem Terra movement. The seeds of the grass-roots movements were sown in the 1960s, with the appearance of ecclesiastical base communities (Communidades Eclesiais de Base). "The CEBs were thought of originally as a new form of reli- gious community to replace the parish, but they also were, and are, an important means of linking popular sectors," according to a Dominican priest close to the movement. Participants from the poor neighborhoods studied the Bible and decided that God did not want them to live in such poverty. Especially during the most repressive years of the military regime (roughly 1969 to 1976), "the CEBs were an important means of consciousness-raising among their members," writes the priest. "They stimulated the creation of grass-roots organizations of all types: neigh- borhood associations, labor unions, rural unions, and committees fighting for day-care centers, health clinics, schools, and land titles." Like the CEBs themselves, these organizations func- tioned democratically, with group discussions and elected leaders, and women played a major role. They empha- sized solidarity and mutual help. But the spark which led to the rapid growth of grass-roots organizing throughout the country began a little later, with the Cost of Living Movement. PUBLIC SPENDING ON HEALTH, EDUCATION, housing and nutrition had steadily declined since the 1964 military coup. In 1977 an archdiocesan survey in Sdo Paulo's sprawling Zona Sul, where hundreds of thousands live in shanty-towns on the treeless hills, showed that the cost of living had become people's major worry. Church groups then began to organize a petition to the government, asking for a freeze on the price of basic foodstuffs. The idea caught on and all over Brazil groups collected signatures: Those who could not write were signed for by neighbors, and everyone added the number of their identity card, which Brazilians are obliged to carry at all times. One million three hundred thousand signatures were collected and, in the fall of 1978, the organizers in Slo Paulo traveled 14 hours by bus to the VOLUME XXIII, NO. 4 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1989) capital, Brasilia, to deliver enormous bundles of petitions to the military president, Gen. Ernesto Geisel. Extra armed guards surrounded the presidential palace that day and the petitioners had to leave their bundles across the street. Once they departed, the president had the papers picked up and carried into the palace. Two weeks later, the government announced that handwriting experts had analyzed the signatures and found many to be false-signed by the same hand. The petition was de- clared worthless. But the Cost of Living Movement did not lie down. The government's disdainful rejection spurred further protests and demands for changes. It was then, in the late 1970s, as the military loosened its grip, that grass-roots organizing took off. Mothers' clubs and neighborhood associations sprang up, as did other local groups demand- ing clinics, schools, water and child-care facilities. This spontaneous boom in community organizing was one important element leading to the founding of the Workers Party (PT) in 1980. By 1984 grass-roots movements again emerged in national politics as part of Brazil's biggest mass move- ment of modem times, the campaign for direct presiden- tial elections "jd"--now. In every major state capital of Brazil, huge crowds packed the main squares demanding the right to elect the president. However, when direct election was blocked by the military and their political allies, the defeat was deeply frustrating. That frustration, coupled with the transfer of power to a civilian president, Jos6 Sarney, two years later, led the movement to return to local activism. "Unlike the mili- tary, the New Republic [post-military government] was not a clear enemy, it was nebulous and this led to a Sio Paulo Mayor Luiza Erundina (pictured with PT presidential candidate Lula) has tapped community leaders to run the city government z W cn z 37Rer44 o.#h Ae4ricass The Homeless dispersion of the popular movements," says Paulo Mal- dos, coordinator of the Center for Popular Education of the Sedes Sapientiae Institute in Sdo Paulo. President Sarney promised to meet many of the move- ments' demands-housing, land reform, more schools, more food. He coined a slogan, "Tudo Pelo Social," meaning that social needs would be given the highest priority, and became the most popular president ever when he introduced the Cruzado Plan to stabilize inflation in February 1986. Wages and prices were frozen, and the population was invited to become price watchdogs. They did, enthusiastically, and at first it all worked. Errant supermarket managers who tried to put up the prices were led off to prison in handcuffs before cheering crowds of shoppers. For the first time in living memory Brazilians went shopping and found that prices had not changed. Low-income families could buy more food. Once more grass-roots movements went through a period of indecision and apathy when it seemed that the government, after all, had the answers. But, intoxicated with popularity, President Sarney ignored the advice of his economists to make other, more difficult economic adjustments, such as tax reform. Following gubernatorial elections, in which the pro-government Brazilian Demo- cratic Movement (PMDB) swept the board, the Cruzado Plan collapsed. Fearing an upsurge in protest activity, the new governors moved to co-opt the popular movements, inviting their leaders to join the government. Conferences were held and participation became the watchword. Some of these movements had set up the National Association of Popular Movements (ANAMPOS) in 1980. They wanted to create a non-party structure that would not be susceptible to the see-saw of political events and would enable members of grass-roots movements to see the forest and not just the trees. By March 1989 this umbrella group had grown to include some 4,500 organizations, around 75% of all grass-roots organizations, although affiliation is on an informal basis, and ANAMPOS has yet to adopt a plan of action. I N NOVEMBER 1988, WORKERS PARTY CAN- didate Luiza Erundina de Souza was elected mayor of South America's largest city, Sdo Paulo. A former social worker and a migrant from the Northeast state of Paraiba-like many of the city's poor-Erundina, as she is universally known, campaigned on a platform of public honesty and priority attention to the needs of the poor. Suddenly the doors of city hall were flung open to the organizations of the poor neighborhoods, and their lead- ers were recruited to run the new city government. But, Homeless children collect scrap paper in Sio Paulo: Mayor Erundina has vowed to govern with and for the poor REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 38Paulo Maldos maintains, "This was a big loss for the movements, because now they have to prepare a whole new generation of leaders. They know Erundina is on their side, but there's still a certain wariness about being co-opted. They don't want to lose their independence. They want to maintain the right to question, to demand." The grass-roots movements' first taste of power-sharing has come, not only in Sdo Paulo, but in the other 32 towns and cities where the PT won municipal elections last year. Erundina set about keeping her campaign promise to govern with the movements. Popular Councils, made up of the representatives of all the organizations in each zone, have been set up. To draw up the budget for 1990, she has been holding giant meetings with 150 representa- tives of the different movements. The previous mayor, right-wing populist Janio Quad- ros, placed emphasis on appearances-a clean city center, swept and watered and cleared of street vendors and beggars. Middle-class zones enjoyed efficient garbage collection. Untidy favelas were removed to the distant outskirts. Construction was initiated on costly tunnels and bypasses to speed private car transport. Erundina and the grass-roots movements have other priorities. Street sweepers and garbage collectors now also appear in the periphery. Public transport is given priority over private. And once the city resolves the debts Erundina inherited, investment in health, education and housing can begin. It is not going to be clear sailing. Already the mayor has had to take unpopular decisions. When homeless people invaded new low-income housing developments already promised to people on the housing list, she brought in the police to evict them. Sem Terra has offered a truce, but if Erundina does not come up with solutions for the chronic housing problem, the occupations and confronta- tions will begin again. Leaders like Father Ticdo, a parish priest who has led the movement in the East Zone from the start, and has been hauled up in court several times, believes the pressure has to be kept up whoever is in power and even if that power is shared. T HE PT IS THE ONLY POLITICAL PARTY which takes the grass-roots movements seriously -not surprising since, as Erildes Mescoloto, coordinator of the party's grass-roots movements department, ex- plains: "They have been one of the pillars of the PT, right from the beginning in 1980. The other fundamental pillar is the combative labor movement. It is the participants in these movements-housing, human rights, blacks, women, land, and all the others-who form the heart of the PT." Mescolato sees them as a vital means for political con- sciousness-raising. "Through belonging to them, people learn to understand the role of the state....They become aware that the state is at the service of the privileged, and must be transformed into a state for the benefit of the poor....People acquire the awareness that what will trans- form this situation is not a salvador da pdtria, a savior of After an eviction in Sio Paulo's East Zone: "The new president will use repression if he cannot co-opt them" the nation, a messiah, but rather they themselves, as citizens." He admits that the movements have an Achilles heel: "Because they are specific, once they obtain what they're fighting for, they can fall apart. It's no use just achieving things that are an obligation of the state anyway. We want citizens to have power....They have to organize on a different level, to create a structure and prepare for the conquest of a new society, not just a water supply or a day- care center." Behind this lies a certain pessimism about what will happen after the presidential elections, which it now seems the PT candidate Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva does not stand much chance of winning. Predicts Mescoloto: "The economic situation will explode and the new presi- dent, whoever he is, will use repression against the grass- roots movements if he cannot co-opt them." But today at least the potential for a powerful national movement of community organizations seems bright. Congresses, meetings, and seminars of grass-roots move- ments are being held all over the country, laying founda- tions with a constant exchange of information. At one such meeting held recently in Slo Paulo, Jos6 Souza from VOLUME XXIII, NO. 4 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1989) 39RThe Homeless The Homeless the East Zone Transport Users told delegates from scores of organizations, "A common program for the myriad grass-roots movements is urgently needed. The will to define a common way forward exists. And with it we can build real decision-making power over the country's future."

Tags: Brazil, Sao Paulo, squatters, MST, organizing

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