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Case #986

Brazil’s Grassroots Organizing


The fault line of class runs through virtually everything in Brazil, one of the most unequal countries in the world. The most visible forms of class revolt include cheering for the soccer underdogs in the 2002 Brazil Cup finals and backing another resurgent underdog, presidential candidate Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva of the left-wing Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT). But far more significant than playing field sympathies - more significant, even, than swelling support for Lula, who has newly moderated his program (see "Lula Light?") - is the quiet earthquake of grassroots organizing across Brazil.



Brazil's largest social movement is labor, boasting tens of millions of union members. The biggest and most militant of the country's three union federations, the Unified Workers' Central (CUT), claims close to 20 million members. The CUT forms the core of the PT's base, and the Brazilian working class's most important voice. But while grassroots labor activism remains vital, deindustrialization of Brazil's durable manufacturing has put the CUT on the defensive, and the federation has moved closer to a "business unionism" model. As labor's militancy has weakened, mobilizations to challenge the distribution of land, the complex racial order, and Brazilian machismo have stepped forward, fundamentally reshaping the political landscape of Latin America's largest country.

Who owns land in the countryside might not seem the most critical issue in a country where almost three out of four live in urban areas. But the radical vision of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) is that with urban jobs in increasingly short supply, the only viable future is to get many millions of Brazilians working their own land. They are well on their way to this goal, with 400,000 families in campamentos (encampments) or in the permanent assentamentos (settlements). The more established settlements have managed to build community, health, and recreation centers, and even radio stations. Typically, families own their own land but work cooperatively on each other's plots as well as on community projects.

The movement directly confronts the profound concentration of land ownership: three percent of Brazilians own two-thirds of the land. The Brazilian Constitution requires land owners to put their land to productive use and to obey labor codes, but before the landless mobilized, these rules were rarely enforced. The MST has brought the laws to life with political pressure tactics including land occupations, highway blockings, and colorful marches. They draw settlers from the ranks of landless farm workers or those crowded in the favelas (slums) that ring every Brazilian city, often building on the organizing of liberation theology-inspired "Christian base communities."

Once a settlement is in place, education is a top priority for the MST. "The first thing we build is a school."

But the MST faces new challenges. Elias Araujo, a state level MST coordinator, declared that "The Brazilian government has defined us as their main enemy."

This article also includes specific detailed sections on (1) The MST occupation and anti-expansion of a military base in Alcantara, on the Caribbean coast. (2) ”Debunking the Myth of Racial Democracy in Brazil” (1970s onward). (3) The Brazilian Women’s Movement (1970s onward). These movements grew out of and are still tightly connected to the MST landless workers movement.

Regarding Lula’s election (upcoming at the time of the writing of this article): Lula may well win the presidency in October, with a reform program that promises sorely needed relief to Brazilians suffering from free-market policies and the slings and arrows of globalization. However, his victory will likely come from a "negative" vote - a vote against the tired right-wing parties that have dominated Brazilian politics since the dictatorship ended in 1985 - rather than from a majority committed to sweeping change. Plus, as Erminia Maricato, a left-wing urban planner who drafted Lula's urban platform, commented, "We have lots of good laws in Brazil. The question is implementing them." The PT's ability to actually enact and enforce progressive laws will depend on grassroots organizations like the MST and the women of Santo Andre. It is these movements that retain the capacity to inspire Brazilian workers, peasants, slum-dwellers - and even middle class rock `n' rollers like Bruno.
Location: Brazil
Action: Legal, Political
Setting: Semi-Developed
Extent of Action: National
Issues: Human Rights
Year(s): 2002
Outcome in progress
Source: Dollars and Sense #243, September/October 2002, p.26


Prepared By: sl, 9/10
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