Lula is not alone

João Paulo Rodrigues of the MST and president Lula. Photo Acervo MST

An interview with João Paulo Rodrigues, member of the national leadership of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST)

From El Cohete à la Luna*

Since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office as President, Brazil has been experiencing a new stage that is as rich and challenging as it is complex. How to ensure that the mistakes made by the Workers' Party in its previous administrations are not repeated? How can this new political moment strengthen the social movements of this South American giant? Central issues of this dialogue with peasant leader João Paulo Rodrigues, who at just 43 years old is already a prominent member of the national leadership of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), one of the most important actors on the Latin American continent. Rodrigues played a central role in the pre-election process by representing the MST and social movements in coordinating Lula's presidential campaign.

1. March 1st marks the beginning of President Lula's third month in office. What is your assessment of these first 100 days?

Our assessment of the first three months is positive. Brazil has been going through a deep crisis since 2015, with the attacks on democracy, the economic recession and the social crisis with unemployment and the return of hunger. There was a process of destruction of the Social State, especially of the institutions that operate public policies, which will take time to be reorganized. In other words, it is the beginning of a journey to resume economic growth, fight social inequality and carry out the necessary structural reforms to solve the people's problems.

2. What is the current status of the opposition to this government? Is "Bolsonarism" weakened, rearming its forces, on the offensive? Have the events of January 8 been “digested” by Brazilian society?

Lula was elected as an expression of a broad democratic front that was built as an opposition to the Bolsonaro government. The president is very firm, with a position more to the left in politics and economics. However, this broad front is a composition of political and social forces from the left, center and sectors of the right. The field of opposition to the government is formed, above all, by the more ideological extreme right, even more so after the attack on the Republic on January 8, which was repudiated by most of society. However, within the broad front of the government, there are sectors with different projects, which dispute the government's policies in relation to various topics, such as economic policy, fuel price policy and agrarian-land policy. With the electoral defeat, Bolsonarism will go through a period of ebb and will lose strength, but conservative ideas and values, in addition to the communication machine, are very strong in society. It will be necessary to make a political, social and economic struggle of the democratic forces to defeat Bolsonarism and its project in the next period.

3. What about the social movements, and do they already feel a new political air from January 1, 2023?

The climate changed with Lula's inauguration among popular movements and in Brazilian society. The feeling is that the worst is over, but that it is necessary to maintain the mobilization and fight to obtain the conquests. Lula put together a good team in the government, made room for important leaders in society and has defended a progressive agenda in the economy and in the social area. Lula's visit to the Yanomami peoples in Roraima, who were left by the Bolsonaro government in a situation of genocide, has a lot of symbolism and demonstrates that the new government will serve those who need it most.

4. In previous PT governments (Lula and Dilma) social movements made fundamental criticisms of “tepid” administrations. For example, the MST strongly criticized the failure to advance agrarian reform… The indigenous and environmental movements were also very critical. Is there a new type of relationship between the current Lula government and social movements? Is there a concern that past mistakes will be repeated?

There was a maturation on the part of popular movements, political parties and Lula. The Lula governments from 2003 to 2010 were the first experience of a progressive government with a president formed by the working class. It was a learning time. Since then, the country has gone through the 2016 coup, the persecution and imprisonment of Lula and the emergence of the extreme right with the election of Bolsonaro. It seems to me that there is a much greater political understanding of political challenges. On the part of the popular movements, it is necessary to argue with society for a program of social changes, to fight for the fulfillment of our interests and to defend the government against the pressures of the right. On the part of the government, it is up to dialogue with the movements, advance with the agendas set with the struggles and encourage greater political participation of society to build a new form of governance.

5. What are the MST's main demands for this new stage? Is agrarian reform still relevant?

The movement is in line with President Lula's agenda of placing centrality on the fight against hunger and poverty in the country. Ending hunger demands assistance to those who are in a vulnerable situation and a quality food production policy, in addition to social income policies. The first item on the agenda, which is part of an emergency program, is the settlement of families who have been in encampments. There are more than 100,000 families living in encampments, many of whom have been under the black tarp for 10 years. The government needs to open a registry and draw up a schedule for settling the families. Around 30,000 families are in pre-settlement areas that did not take effect because INCRA did not complete the legal process. The second agenda item refers to family farming and families in settlements, who maintained food production even under the Bolsonaro government, which dismantled public policies. It is necessary to resume policies for production, credit, cooperation, industrialization and commercialization for the settlements.

6. Has progress been made towards a real / growing unity of Brazilian actors and social movements at this stage, or is each acting on its own?

The greatest political unity of popular movements since the 1990s was built in opposition to the Bolsonaro government and in Lula's election. This political unity is real and has advanced from the programmatic point of view and political tactics. In March, we held a large plenary with all the popular movements and progressive forces, we discussed common slogans and drew up a calendar of struggles for the first half.

7. Latin America faces a complex and challenging stage. There are a number of progressive governments. What is your understanding of the main challenges the continent is currently facing?

Latin America is experiencing a new moment with the election of progressive governments in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and, especially, Colombia, in addition to the historic resistance of Cuba and Venezuela. This demonstrates that the new political expressions of the neoliberal program and the project of US imperialism are rejected by the Latin American people. However, it is necessary to advance in popular organization and in the ideological struggle around an anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal program to sustain and advance these governments. With the emergence of the extreme right and the crisis of liberal democracies, which is expressed in coups, it is not enough to win elections. We need to have the people organized, politicized and mobilized to push progressive governments and fight the extreme right and the forces of neoliberalism.

8. All this in a Europe faced with a terrible war. What is your understanding of this complex international reality?

The crisis of capitalism that has dragged on since 2007/2008 has political, economic, social and geopolitical implications. Contradictions on the international scene have become more acute with the global crisis, China's economic emergence and the US and European reaction, including the strengthening of the extreme right across the world. NATO's eastward expansion led to Russia's response with the War in Ukraine. It is necessary to find a political path to peace, which depends on signals from all sides, such as a withdrawal from NATO and the cessation of the war in Ukraine.

* Interview with João Paulo Rodrigues, from the national leadership of the MST, by journalist Sergio Ferrari, originally published in Spanish by El Cohete à la Luna