The Landless Workers Movement and Brazil’s triple crisis

Brazil is currently undergoing a triple crisis - economic, urban and political – and the government is responding to it with a set of neoliberal policies that are in fact class-driven, according to the MST. Español. Português.

François Houtart
26 October 2015

"Agência Brasil. Licensed under Copyrighted free use via Commons -

The global economic crisis hitting Brazil has serious political consequences. Cuts in social programs and infrastructure are on the agenda. Privatization of education is under way. States which were in the past showcases for the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT), such as Rio Grande do Sul (now governed by the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático BrasileiroPMDB), a center-right party allied at federal level with the PT) and Paraná (the governor of which belongs to Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s  Brazilian Social Democracy Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira – PSDP), are now adopting neoliberal social and economic policies. And President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity ratings have fallen below the 10% mark.

Last September 21-25, the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST) organized in Brasilia the second national meeting of Agrarian Reform Educators. These are teachers from all education levels, from basic literacy and primary school to university, who work in MST and other rural movements’ settlements. Their teaching programs are supported by the State and they benefit from a number of collaboration agreements with several State universities. Tens of thousands of students have been through this education system since the scheme was launched in 1998.

The political dimension of the meeting and its timing was very much in the minds of the attendees. Two cabinet ministers were there at the opening session; the Minister of Education and the Minister of Agrarian Development. The latter, Patrus Ananias (PT), former Minister of Social Welfare responsible for the programs against poverty - including the Bolsa Familia (Family Bag) which provides financial aid to poor families - is supposed to counterbalance Kátia Abreu, the current Minister of Agriculture, who represents the big landowners or ruralistas (ruralist) interests, although Ananias’s budget is only a fraction of Abreu’s.

MST’s founder João Pedro Stedile spoke loud and clear about the current socio-political situation: we must fight against neoliberal policies, he said, because they amount to a class strategy. The situation, however, is truly confusing since in today's Brazil no social class is hegemonic, and this generates dubious political alliances and contradictory projects.

Brazil’s triple crisis

According to Stedile, the country is currently undergoing a triple crisis. The first is an economic crisis emanating from the global capitalist system, which has heightened the dependence of Brazil’s economy in the last 15 years through re-primarization and relative de-industrialization. The country is not growing anymore. The productive bourgeoisie is now geared towards financial speculation. In no time, more than 200 billion dollars have fled the country. Transnational corporations are reinvesting abroad.

The second crisis is a multifold urban crisis. It has to do with expensive and poor quality transportation, housing deficits, and the fact that higher education is absorbing only 15% of secondary level graduates. Every year 40,000 people - mostly young, poor, and black – get killed in Brazil, and about 50,000 disappear. It should also be remembered that Brazilian society is a society that still suffers from extreme inequality. The rich live in another dimension. It is the second country in the world by number of private helicopters, after the United States.

The third crisis is political. The current Brazilian electoral system entails the kidnapping of the popular will and produces the over-representation of landowners in Congress. Corruption affects the government parties, particularly the PT, but even more so its ally, the PMDB, which holds the vice-presidency and controls the Senate leadership. This explains, to a large extent, the president’s loss of credibility.

João Pedro Stedile concluded that the people must rebuild their space, in the streets rather than the institutions. A year before, in its 2014 congress, the MST had already announced the resumption of land occupations. Hundreds of actions have taken place in the last months, one of them affecting a cabinet minister’s private property, but fortunately no serious incidents have been reported.

The closing down of thousands of rural schools, Stedile added, will each entail the occupation of a town hall (prefeitura). He asked for solidarity with the oil industry workers striking not for wage increases, but to defend the share of the oil revenues earmarked for education. He ended up recalling that agro-ecology constitutes the MST’s basic principle and that the People’s Agrarian Reform is the Movement’s main objective in its fight against land concentration and monoculture.

Dilma is no leftist

Coinciding in time, Marcelo Carcanholo, president of the Latin American Society of Political Economy and Critical Thinking (Sociedad Latinoamericana de Economía Política y Pensamiento Crítico – SEPLA) published an article in the on-line magazine Izquierda (Left) under the title: “Why is Dilma’s government not leftist? – The economic policies of the PT governments” (Izquierda, 57, September 2015, 41-45).

According to this analyst, Lula did not change the economic logic of his predecessor, so as not to lose market credibility, and he even broadened some structural reforms to their advantage. He took advantage of the favourable international environment for raising growth rates without inflationary pressures and for developing compensatory social policies. This was in the 2002-2007 period.

As has been mentioned, the result was re-primarization and relative de-industrialization - that is, great external vulnerability. The recessionary economic situation of 2007-2008 had instant effects. Facing the crisis, the government responded with tax exemptions, credit expansion and the protection of guaranteed markets: a shy countercyclical policy in a liberal ocean. In the medium term, this resulted in an increase in the country’s fiscal deficit and greater family indebtedness and paved the way for an eventual orthodox adjustment.

A leftist policy, on the contrary, would have broken the neoliberal structures and reduced the external structural vulnerability by promoting changes in the concentration of income, the broadening of domestic markets and the expansion of regional integration beyond trade agreements. It would have also meant social and public policies transcending compensatory measures, which are ultimately derived from the widening of neoliberal reforms.

Carcanholo’s conclusion is that Dilma is no leftist, because this was never on the cards and because the PT’s political and class alliance was never intended otherwise. If some intellectuals think that this position is too radical, the MST’s experience in the field tends to confirm its relevance.


This article was previously published by Rebelión.

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