Over the past few decades, there have been various forms of popular protest in Latin America against the austerity measures and conservative economic policies that have come to be called “neoliberalism.” These protests have taken diverse forms: the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, the neopopulist Fifth Republic Movement led by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the national indigenous movement led by the National Indigenous Confederation of Ecuador (CONAIE), the regime-changing popular mobilizations in Argentina and Bolivia, and the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST), which is the subject of this article.
Such movements are also a recent and vociferous manifestation of the specter of mass popular mobilization against the governing elite that has haunted Latin America since colonial times. At present, a great many people—especially the poor—seem to feel that the much-touted return to democracy, the celebration of civil society and the incorporation of Latin America into the globalization process has left them marginalized both economically and politically. The reactions in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia have been strong and significant and, in varying ways, make one wonder if the dominant political project is working for common people. It is also quite possible that it is the democratization and celebration of civil society that allow—some would say encourage—the political mobilization that is manifest in the widespread emergence of forceful mass-based social and political movements.
There is a growing consensus that the traditional politicians’ new political enterprise is leaving behind the great majorities and, effectively, further marginalizing specific groups within those majorities. Indicators of the growing malaise are many: general alienation from the traditional political process, increased crime, surging abstention rates in select electoral contests as suggested by the low turnout in Argentina in 2001.1 The 1998 national elections in Brazil saw a similar phenomenon, with 40% of the electorate either abstaining or casting blank or annulled ballots.2 Changing attitudes have often led to the abandonment of traditional political parties for new, more amorphous, ad hoc parties like Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement in Venezuela. They have also produced an upsurge of new sociopolitical movements and mass organizations along with a plethora of national strikes, demonstrations and protests such as those that washed across Argentina at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002.
Mass communication systems and easy, relatively affordable access to the Internet have combined with higher levels of literacy and much greater political freedom under the democratization process.3 This has occurred just as ideas of grassroots democracy, popular participation and even elements of liberation theology and Christian-Base Community organizing have been widely disseminated. There is growing belief that economic equality should exist and that systems working against such equality need to be changed. Unlike the radical revolutionary movements of the last few decades, these new movements do not advocate the radical restructuring of the state through violent revolution. Rather, their primary focus is to work through the existing political system by pushing it to its limits to achieve necessary change and restructuring.4
The end of authoritarian rule and the expansive democratization of the late 1980s created new political dynamics in many Latin American nations. Political spaces began to open up in what came to be labeled “civil society,” and new forms of political action followed. The projection of an elitist armed vanguard as the spearhead of necessary change began to fade in the face of unarmed political and social mobilizations. The assertion of popular power reminiscent of mobilizations by the pre-coup Peasant Leagues in northeastern Brazil began to bubble up in new and varied forms.
By the time neoliberal economic policy became more widespread in the 1990s, it was becoming evident that the extant political systems in much of Latin America were unable to meet the needs of the vast majorities. Indeed, in the eyes of most Latin American popular sectors, the structural adjustments and neoliberal reforms advocated by international financial institutions like the IMF threatened their security and well-being. Their insecurity and dissatisfaction drove them to seek new forms of protest and different political structures that might better address their needs since traditional parties and governments seemed increasingly unable to respond.
As the 1990s progressed, dissatisfaction with traditional political leaders and parties became more widespread along with doubts about the legitimacy of the political system itself. Traditional personalism, clientelism, corruption and avarice became subjects of ridicule and anger, if not rage. The effects of neoliberalism and continued classism and racism amid ever-stronger calls for equality were inescapable. With growing questions about the system’s relevance and legitimacy, these demands were not exclusively addressed to the political system per se but to society more generally. Nor did the populace in most nations look to armed struggles and revolutionary movements to remedy their problems (Colombia is the significant exception here). They sought something different. Groups were looking for new political structures that allowed for their participation. There was a search for new structures that would respond to the perceived—though not always clearly articulated—demands emerging from the popular sectors.
The mst itself was formed as a response to longstanding economic, social and political conditions in Brazil. Land, wealth and power have been allocated in extremely unequal ways since the conquest in the early 1500s. Land has remained highly concentrated, and as late as 1996, one percent of landowners owned 45% of the land.5 Conversely, as of 2001, there were some 4.5 million landless rural workers in Brazil. Wealth has remained equally concentrated. The Brazilian Institute of Government Statistics reported in 2001 that the upper 10% of the population received an average income that was 19 times greater than that of the lowest 40%.6
The plantation agriculture that dominated the colonial period and the early republican era became the standard for Brazilian society. The wealthy few owned the land, reaped the profits and decided the political destiny of the many. The institution of slavery provided most of the labor for the early plantation system and thus further entrenched polarized social relations between the wealthy landowning elite and the disenfranchised toiling masses laboring in the fields. Land remained in relatively few hands, and agricultural laborers continued to be poorly paid and poorly treated.
The commercialization and mechanization of agriculture beginning in the 1970s made much of the existing rural labor force superfluous. As this process continued and became more tightly linked to the increasing globalization of production, large commercial or family estates fired rural laborers, expelled sharecroppers from the land they farmed and acquired the land of farmers who owned small plots. This resulted in growing rural unemployment and the growth of rural landless families, many of whom had to migrate to cities, swelling the numbers of the urban poor. Others opted for the government-sponsored Amazon colonization program, whereby the government transplanted entire families to the Amazon region where they cut down the rainforest for planting. Few found decent jobs in the city, and the easily eroded rainforest subsoil allowed for little sustained agriculture, worsening their collective plight.
The immediate origins of the MST go back to the bitter struggle to survive under the agricultural policies implemented by the military government that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The landless rural workers in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul began to organize to demand land in the early 1980s. Other landless people soon picked up their cry in the neighboring states of Paraná and Santa Catarina.7 They built on a long tradition of rural resistance and rebellion that extends back to the establishments of quilombos (large inland settlements of runaway slaves) and to the famous rebellion of the poor peasants of Canudos in the 1890s. In more recent times it included the well-known Peasant Leagues of Brazil’s impoverished northeast in the 1950s and early 1960s and the Grass Wars in Rio Grande do Sul and other southern states in the 1970s.8
When the MST was founded in southern Brazil in 1984 as a response to rural poverty and the lack of access to land, similar conditions existed in many Brazilian states. Indeed, there were landless workers and peasants throughout the nation, and the MST soon spread from Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná in the South to states like Pernambuco in the Northeast and Pará in the Amazon region. It rapidly became a national organization with coordinated policies and strong local participatory structures characterized by frequent state and national meetings based on direct representation. By 2001 there were active MST organizations in 23 of the 26 states.9
Today the MST is arguably the largest and most powerful social movement in Latin America. The ranks of those associated with it exceed 200,000 and perhaps even double that number. It has a high mobilization capacity at the local, state and even national level. In 1997, for instance, the organization was able to mobilize 100,000 people for a march on Brasilia.
Their views are well articulated. They have a clear understanding of the increased commercialization of agriculture and its consequences for the way production is organized, if not rural life more generally. Similarly, they are fully conscious of how globalization is strengthening these trends and threatening their livelihoods. In small classes, meetings and assemblies, and through their newspaper, Jornal Dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra; their magazine, Revista Sem Terra; and numerous pamphlets, they inform their base through a well-planned program of political education. They even establish schools in their encampments, settlements and cooperatives to make sure the next generation has a clear idea of the politics in play.10 The next generation of leaders attends their national school ITERRA, where they get a strong political and popular orientation, well-grounded instruction in political and organizational theory and practical skills such as accounting and administration.
The MST also facilitates the organic development of highly participatory grassroots organizing rooted in groups of about ten families, which constitute a “Base Nucleus” in each neighborhood. Local general assemblies convene frequently and all members of the family units are encouraged to participate. Frequently held regional, state and even national assemblies in turn incorporate representatives of these local-level units.11 Leadership is collective at all levels, including nationally, where some 102 militants make up the National Coordinating Council.12
Their political culture and decision-making processes clearly break from the authoritarian tradition. The movement has been heavily influenced by liberation theology and the participatory democratic culture generated by the use and study of Paulo Freire’s approach to self-taught, critical education. Indeed, the strongly participatory nature of the organization and the collective nature of leadership and decision-making have made for a political culture that challenges traditional authoritarian notions and vertical decision-making structures.13
One of the characteristics of recent social movements like the MST is a broad national vision. The Sem Terra envision a thoroughgoing land reform and complete restructuring of agrarian production in all of Brazil, as suggested by their pamphlet prepared for their fourth national congress in 2000, “Agrarian Reform for a Brazil Without Latifundios.”14 The MST believes that it is impossible to develop the nation, construct a democratic society, or alleviate poverty and social inequality in the countryside without eliminating the latifundio. But they go on to say that agrarian reform is only viable if it is part of a popular project that would transform Brazil’s economic and social structures.15
Like many of Latin America’s recent social and political movements, the Sem Terra are well aware of how their struggle is linked to international conditions. Thus, they begin by challenging the positive vision of neoliberalism presented by global media.16 In a draft document on the “Fundamental Principles for the Social and Economic Transformation of Rural Brazil,” they note that “the political unity of the Brazilian dominant classes under Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration (1994-2000) has consolidated the implementation of neoliberalism [in Brazil],” and that these neoliberal policies have led to the increased concentration of land and wealth in the hands of the few and the further impoverishment of Brazilian society. “Popular movements,” the document goes on to say, “must challenge this neoliberal conceptualization of our economy and society.”17
Mass political mobilization is another fundamental organizational principle as seen in their massive mobilizations for land takeovers and street demonstrations [See “Memories of Struggle...” p. 24].18 This strategy is widely communicated to those affiliated with the organization. A pamphlet disseminated by the organization, “Brazil Needs a Popular Project,” calls for popular mobilizations, noting that “all the changes in the history of humanity only happened when the people were mobilized,” and that in Brazil, “all the social and political changes that happened were won when the people mobilized and struggled.”19
As has been the case in other Latin American countries, traditional politics and political parties have proven unable and/or unwilling to address the deteriorating economic conditions of marginalized groups who suffer the negative effects of economic globalization. In turn, the social movements have responded with grassroots organization and the development of a new repertoire of action that breaks with old forms of political activity. Developing organization and group actions, sometimes with the outside assistance of progressive organizations concerned with social justice, have tied individual members together in a strongly forged group identity.
In the case of Brazil and the Sem Terra, this outside role was played by the Lutheran Church and even more so by the Pastoral Land Commission of the Catholic Church. Although these organizations assisted the MST along with some segments of the Workers’ Party (PT), the organization never lost its autonomy. It was decided from the onset that this was to be an organization for the Landless Workers, to be run by the Landless Workers and for their benefit as they defined it.
They have taken over large estates and public lands; constructed black plastic-covered encampments along the side of the road to call attention to their demands for land; and have marched and staged confrontations when necessary. They even occupied the family farm of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso shortly before the 2002 election to draw attention to his land-owning interests and the consequent bias they attributed to him. At times they are brutally repressed, assassinated and imprisoned, yet still, they persevere, forcing the distribution of land to their people and others without land. Their ability to mobilize as many as 12,000 people for a single land takeover or 100,000 for a national march suggests the strength of their organizational abilities and how well they communicate and coordinate at the national level. They also garner a great deal of national support, having created a consensus throughout the country that land distribution is a problem and that some substantial reforms are necessary.20
The Landless remain keenly attuned to, and consider themselves part of, the international struggle over globalization. They helped organize and participated in the World Social Fora of Porto Alegre, and have sent representatives to demonstrations and protests throughout the world. Struggles that were once local and isolated are now international and linked.21 International communications networks, including cellular phones and, especially, e-mail, have greatly facilitated the globalization of awareness about local struggles and the support and solidarity they receive. Combined with dramatic actions like massive land takeovers, the MST has generated considerable support at both the national and international level and has helped transform local struggles into national events, redefining local problems as national problems that require national attention and resources.
The interaction between the MST and the PT is also instructive. Relations between the two organizations are generally excellent at the local level with overlapping membership, but the national leaderships have remained separate and not always as cordial. The MST has maintained a militant line in regard to the need to take over unused land and assert their agenda, whereas much of the PT leadership has wanted to be more conciliatory. Thus, the Sem Terra generally support the PT in most local campaigns and backed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in his successful campaign for the presidency. They helped achieve significant regime change in Brazil: Lula was elected with an unprecedented 61% of the vote in the 2002 runoff.
Indeed, realizing the PT’s historic challenge to neoliberal policies and elitist rule, the landless turned out heavily in the election to join some 80% of registered voters who participated in both rounds of voting. Once the election was over, the MST did not demand to be part of the government. Rather, they continued to press the government for a comprehensive land reform program and a redistribution of both land and wealth. There would be no return to “politics as usual.” The PT would pursue its “Zero Hunger” program and other social and economic initiatives and the MST would press the PT government for the structural reforms—like comprehensive agrarian reform—that it considered necessary. By 2004, the MST displayed considerable dissatisfaction with what it considered the relative inaction of the government in regard to land reform, and it was threatening to once again engage in massive land takeovers. At the same time, the Lula government was facing increasing pressure from international financial institutions and national economic interests for moderate policies. By functioning in civil society and not becoming part of the government, however, the MST was free to pursue its original demands for land reform and socio-economic transformation.
Like the mst, many of the region’s social movements have grown and have become increasingly politicized. They have come to represent a clear response to the neoliberal economic policies that have been forced on Latin American nations by international financial institutions, the U.S. government and national economic elites. In the 20 years since Brazil’s military left government, the MST has embedded itself in civil society, taking advantage of the considerable political space that has opened up with the institutionalization of nominal democracy. Currently, the leftist Workers’ Party is in control of the national and many state and municipal governments and has promised reform and structural change. Though they may lack the political will to implement many of their promised policies like land reform, they are not totally opposed to the policies being advocated by the MST. If nothing else, the changed political situation makes repression unlikely and allows for considerable political space in which social movements like the MST can maneuver.
As they engage in grassroots organization and massive local and national mobilizations, the MST and social movements elsewhere have challenged the patterns of policymaking in Brazil and many other Latin American countries. Their growth and militancy have generated a whole new repertoire of actions that include national mobilizations so massive that they can topple governments—as in Bolivia—or force them to change their policies. They have left the traditional parties far behind as they forge new political horizons and create a non-authoritarian, participatory political culture. Such movements are using existing political space to maximum effect. In the process they are substantially strengthening participatory democratic practice.
They have vigorously resisted the corporate-led economic globalization process that has been heralded as the panacea to underdevelopment and poverty. Indeed, the economic realities that the masses of people all over Latin America are living, provide a potent empirical antidote to the universal prescription to globalize. The formulation of highly political social movements and the participatory democracy they practice provide a new and promising response to global neoliberalism. Further, these responses represent a substantial change from previous forms of political action, and they are transforming the conduct of politics in Brazil and Latin America.
About the Author
Harry E. Vanden is a professor of political science and international studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa. He has published some thirty scholarly articles and six books, including Politics of Latin America: the Power Game (Oxford University Press, 2002).
1. Susan Kaufman Purcell, “Electoral Lessons,” América Economica, December 6, 2001, p. 40.
2. Banco de Datos Políticos das Américas, “Brazil: Eleções Presidencias de 1998,” , accessed April 19, 2002.
3. See: United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1999 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3-9.
4. CONAIE’s very brief participation in a would-be junta that held the Ecuadoran Congress building overnight in January of 2000 is the exception. See: Jennifer N. Collins, “A Sense of Possibility, Ecuador’s Indigenous Movement Takes Center Stage,” in “!Adelante! The New Rural Activism in the Americas,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 35, No. 5, March/April, 2002, pp. 40-46.
5. James Petras, “The Rural Landless Workers’ Movement,” Z Magazine, (March 2000), p. 35.
6. Brazilian Institute of Statistics, Statistical Report 2001, as cited in “Pais Termina Anos 90 Tão Desigual como Comencou,” Folha de São Paulo (April 5, 2001).
7. See: Stedile interview in this issue, p. 24, and João Pedro Stedile and Bernardo Mançano Fernandes. Brava Gente: a Ttrajectorai do MST e a Luta Pela Terra no Brasil (São Paulo: Fundacão Perseo Abramo, 1999). In English, see: Angus Wright and Wendy Wolford, To Inherit the Earth, the Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2003), and Sue Bradford and Jan Rocha, Cutting the Wire, the Story of Landless Movement in Brazil (London: Latin American Bureau, 2002).
8. See: Elide Rugai Bastos, As Ligas Camponesas (Petópolis: Vozes,1984).
9. See Bradford and Rocha, Cutting The Wire, and interview with Geraldo Fontes, member of the National Coordinating Council, São Paulo, September 17, 2003.
10. In field research in Rio Grande do Sul State in 2001, the author observed a mixed grade class in one of the campamentos learning about “trasgenicos”—genetically engineered crops, their hazards and the corporations that control them. The MST produces educational material and guides—as well as training and orientation—on how to develop schools and popular education. See: “O que queremos com as escolas dos asentamientos,” Caderno de Formacão No. 18, March 1999; and Como fazemos a escola de educacão fundamental,” Cuaderno de Educacão No. 9 (MST, Education Sector, 1999).
11. The neighborhood organization of ten families could be the base unit (nucleo de base) in a larger cooperative or settlement, or even a temporary encampment. Each group then sends two representatives to a ruling council in each settlement, cooperative or encampment. General meetings in which all can participate are also held. These organizations in turn send representatives to the regional and state congresses. Special meetings are held to pick the representatives to the National Encounters (every two years) and National Congresses (every five years). As per Geraldo Fontes, member of the National Coordinating Council, in interview in São Paulo, September 17, 2003.
12. Geraldo Flores, interview, September 17, 2003.
13. See: “O MST e a cultura,” Caderno de Formacão No. 34 (São Paulo: Ademar Bogo, 2000), and Carlos Rodrigues Brandão, História do menino que lia o mundo, Fazendo História No. 7 (Veranópolis: ITERRA, 2001).
14. Reforma Agraria, por um Brasil sem latifundio (São Paulo: Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra-MST,  ).
15. Reforma Agraria, p. 4.
16. See, for instance, the political education pamphlet that the MST uses to explain neoliberalism to its affiliates: O Neoliberalism, ou o mecanismo para fabricar mais pobres entre os pobres, Notebook No. 5 (São Paulo: Consulta Popular, 1993).
17. The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), “Fundamental Principles for the Social and Economic Transformation of Rural Brazil,” Translated by Wilder Robles, Journal of Peasant Studies (January, 2001), Vol 28, No. 2: p.153-154.
18. See Stedile interview this issue, p. 24
19. MST, O Brasil precisa de um projeto popular, Cuartilla No. 11 (Sào Paulo: Secrtaria Operative de Consulta Popular, 2000) pp.1-29.
20. It should, however, be noted that much of the press was not always sympathetic and condemned their land takeovers as illegal actions. The rural landowners also did all in their power to stop their actions and discredit them in the public eye.
21. See Donatella de la Porta and Sidney Tarrow, eds., Transnational Protest & Global Activism (Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2005).