Mobilizing People Power Beyond Elections in Brazil
For an MST activist, a win for Lula in the upcoming runoff vote against Bolsonaro is only one step in a crucial struggle to rebuild the Brazilian and Latin American Left.
Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), hailed as one of the largest social movements in Latin America with some 1.5 million members, has long been supportive but critical of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT). Known for its direct-action strategy of occupying unproductive land to pressure the government to convert their encampments into permanent land reform settlements, the movement has organized poor rural workers to fight for land access, agrarian reform, and social justice for more than three decades. This year, the MST not only mobilized in support of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but also ran candidates for the first time. Of 15 MST candidates, seven were successful.
Now, anticipating a Lula win in the October 30 second round against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, the MST is preparing to push for urgent change after four years of rollbacks under the current government. Cassia Bechara, a member of MST’s national board and the coordinator of the International Relations Collective, spoke with NACLA editors Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson about Lula, the elections, and the future of left mobilizing in Brazil. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
NACLA: Some media outlets are treating the outcome of the first-round elections as a defeat for Lula, since he won with a narrower margin than expected. How does the MST interpret the results of the first round?
Cassia Bechara: It cannot be said that this was a defeat for Lula if Lula had 48.3 percent of the votes. We needed less than 2 percent more for us to win in the first round. But it’s true that Bolsonaro had many more votes than expected, which showed us what we call in Portuguese the “useful vote.” It's when people who were going to vote for another candidate in the end decide to vote for someone just to prevent another candidate from winning. So we saw that there were a lot of useful votes from the right to prevent Lula from winning in the first round. That's why the polls didn't show the level of support that Bolsonaro actually had.
We did have a chance to win in the first round. But what really surprised us is that even after everything that Bolsonaro did during these last four years, he still had 43.2 percent of the votes in the first round. Of course, we were a bit frustrated, and very much concerned with those results.
NACLA: In this election, the MST fielded candidates for the first time. Why was this an important strategy now and what does the MST hope its elected representatives can accomplish?
CB: The MST has always participated in elections, supporting candidates and so on. But that was the first time that we nominated people from our political base to run using the MST name. We are still not a [political] party. All the comrades who ran were affiliated with the PT. So we have a people's movement. It's a tricky balance.
The decision was made after a lot of discussion in all political levels of the MST. We understood that this election was different. We’re not only talking about electing Lula. We're talking about defeating Bolsonarismo, the worst project we’ve ever had in Brazil. We're talking about defeating a neo-fascist, ultra-neoliberal, racist, misogynist that has brought the worst in Brazilian society. What is at stake is much more than the personification of Lula. It is really to defeat this project—not only Bolsonaro as a person, but this project that Bolsonaro symbolizes.
We launched 15 candidates and seven were elected, four in state legislatures and three in the national Congress. It was a very strong political achievement for the MST. In Rio de Janeiro, where we have a very small social base, we elected Marina [Lucia Marina dos Santos, also known as “Marina do MST”] with 46,000 votes!
So my evaluation of this process is that, first, we were able to bring the MST way of doing grassroots work into the campaign. And that was very interesting. It wasn't a TV campaign, it was really grassroots work. We went to the favelas to talk to people. We went to the neighborhoods to talk to the people. Marina was in the streets, day and night. Other candidates just sit at home or are busy with a lot of meetings and have paid people in the streets handing out leaflets. Our strategy was through true grassroots work.
And that was very, very important because if we can leave this legacy to the left in Brazil, then our goal is accomplished. We need the Left to understand that the electoral process is not just about getting elected. You need to politicize this process! We were able to decriminalize the MST in many spaces where MST is very much criminalized, especially in the big cities. We were able to discuss topics such as agrarian reform, the production of healthy foods, and [expansion of] agribusiness. We were able to discuss our project with the people in a way that I think we had never done before.
We were also able to reorganize our social base after two years of a pandemic that made it very difficult for us to organize our social base. So for us, independent of the electoral results, we had a very strong political victory in this process.
NACLA: What were some of the major concerns you were hearing from people during these discussions and this campaigning?
CB: The main issue in Brazil now is hunger. We have today 33 million people in Brazil who are facing hunger. When you go to the communities, when you go to the favelas, it's very difficult for people to discuss anything else when they don't have anything to eat, when they don't have anything to give to their children. Or people who are not able to buy gas for the stove anymore. There are so many people who are cooking with wood again, because they don't have money to buy gas. We think as MST—and we are saying this to Lula and to the PT—we need to tackle hunger. This is the first and foremost problem in Brazilian society today.
NACLA: Besides tackling hunger, what are the other expectations of a Lula government?
CB: Well, we also know that Lula’s government is going to be compromised. Lula made very, very broad alliances in order to be able to defeat Bolsonaro. The fact is, these allies are going to ask for a price for the support. We know that. So that’s why it's very hard to say how Lula’s government is going to be because it will depend a lot on the composition of this government. And the composition of the government is going to depend a lot on the favors that are going to be asked of Lula.
During the campaign, the Left had three different tactics. One was a group of the “It's already won...” And this, for us, was a very dangerous tactic because it demobilized the militants. The second tactic [Lula’s approach] was to create a very broad alliance to win in the first round, because they said winning the first round would send a strong message to Bolsonaro. We also don't agree 100 percent with this tactic. And it showed us that it wasn't effective because we didn't win in the first round.
Our tactic was connected to the idea that we needed to change the way we campaigned and we needed to go to the streets and organize people. And that's why our priority as MST during the campaign was the organization of the people's committees—groups of people in the territories where we could discuss the projects in dispute in this election. The first objective was to win the election. Second, to defend the government against possible attacks from the Right. But third and most importantly, to be able to push this government to the left. And that's going to be our task for a new government. It will be about mobilizing and organizing the people, and understanding that applying pressure on a future Lula government doesn't mean that we are against Lula. On the contrary, we are helping Lula to go to the place where he should be.
We have a platform that we have built with many other movements from Brazil, which are emergency measures that we think that Lula’s government must take [seriously] in its first 100 days.
The first task is tackling hunger. And tackling hunger means that the government is going to need to promote peasant agriculture. The government is going to have to reorganize the system of state support for the food supply that Bolsonaro totally dismantled. The government is going to have to have policies to subsidize food. And also to revert all the political setbacks of the Bolsonaro government. After that, we will have to mobilize and apply pressure to advance structural changes, which is always more difficult. For agrarian reform, the government will have to deal with confronting [the power of] agribusiness. If we keep the dependence on agribusiness, for exports, we will never solve unemployment in Brazil. We need to reindustrialize the country. Those are much more structural issues that we know we are only going to accomplish if we have a lot of mobilization and pressure from the society.
NACLA: Tell us more about the comitês populares da luta or peoples’ committees organized in the leadup to the elections. MST leader João Pedro Stedile recently said that Brazil has prospects for building a historic mass popular movement. How do you see that kind of mass movement surfacing in a moment when the far-right is strong in Brazil and globally?
CB: We have today 7,000 people's committees mobilized all over the country. We need to strengthen these committees. We need those committees to be more than an electoral tool; they also need to be a participatory tool. In the past the PT made a lot of good policies for the poor and for the poorest, but it never really promoted people's participation. It was completely different than what Chávez did through the comunas. What we want is for the people’s committees to help build different ways for people’s participation in the political process.
But it needs to be both. On one hand we need to strengthen the people's committees and on the other hand, the government needs to open space for people's participation. That's the idea when we say that we have the potential to be a mass movement in terms of people's participation.
NACLA: What are the concerns that the MST and other popular movements have now with an emboldened Right? How do you confront those threats? For example, it’s clear that fundamentalist evangelical ideology is really gaining traction. Does the MST have a strategy for counterpolitical education?
CB: We don't have the answer. We have a few guesses. I think one of the things is that the left, including us, needs to study more to better understand this phenomenon, of how these fundamentalist, conservative views got so entrenched in the working class. Because we're talking about the working class. Big capital doesn’t care if it's Bolsonaro or not, they just want someone to defend their interests. But this is entrenched in the working class and this is something that we need to study more.
Bolsonaro got 43 percent of the votes. Part of that is what we called Bolsonaro raiz [root Bolsonaro], which is the ideological Bolsonaro. Those are people who believe ideologically, they are racist ideologically, they defend Bolsonaro in all its worst [forms]. And this is more or less 25 percent within this 43 percent, about half of Bolsonaro’s votes. The other 25 percent? Well Brazil is a very conservative society. We carry a heritage of being the biggest slave country in the world. We have a heritage of being the last country in the world to abolish slavery. We have the heritage of being a country which was founded under the latifundio, slavery, and monoculture for exports.
And we have a level of structural violence that most Brazilians don't want to acknowledge. Because [they say] “oh no, but Brazil is so nice, they're so happy, they have carnival, they have football!” But we are fucking violent! Brazil concentrates 20.4 percent of all homicides in the world. That means 27,500 people were killed only in 2021. That means more than 200 people per day. How can you say that this is not a violent society. Bolsonarismo the project is bigger than the person himself, but he was able, with his personality, to bring this violence, this racism, this structural prejudice of this society to the surface.
NACLA: We know exactly what you mean!
CB: Yes, it’s what Trumpism means to the U.S. So you know it’s not easy to confront. This is why we think the people’s committees may help. Our goal is that they will be groups of people who are in a territory and these people do the work in that territory, be it a community, be it a neighborhood. And this means organizing people around the concrete issues of that territory, bringing people to think about solutions and the cause of the difficulties that they are living. It also means participation, it means political education.
This includes a lot of churches and a lot of Christian Pentecostal churches, which do not share the same vision as the fundamentalist churches allied with Bolsonaro. So we need to learn how to talk to these people, and we will only be able to learn how to talk to these people from them themselves. We have been organizing meetings with the progressive Pentecostal church. We built many people's committees which included pastors and people from the Pentecostal church. So we've been studying the fundamentalists, within the working class to be able to deal with it. We are very sure that defeating Bolsonaro in the election does not mean defeating the project that Bolsonaro symbolizes. It's gonna be a process and we have a lot of wounds to heal in this society.
NACLA: What would you like to tell organizations and movements in the United States? What would solidarity look like?
CB: Bolsonaro and Trump are not local phenomena. It’s gaining power all over the world. And the only way to confront this extreme right, this neo-fascist right, is joining hands. We need to understand that the things that we are struggling against at the local level, they're really connected at the international level. Bolsonaro is what Bolsonaro is because of Trump, because of Steve Bannon, because of Modi in India, because of all the other extreme rights all over the world.
The second message is, you need to pressure your government, especially the U.S. government, to lift the economic blockades not only for Latin America but for the well-being of the world. Latin America will only be able to build national people’s sovereignty projects if we build regional integration. Isolated it's just impossible for us to face US imperialism or to face all the economic issues that our countries have.
One of the things that we've been discussing at ALBA movements, for example, is how one of our tasks as people's movements from countries with progressive governments is to press our governments to make regional integration of Latin America a priority again. Not only at an economic level and cultural level but also at a social level. In terms of natural resources, we have everything we need to be able to advance in technology, in industrialization, but we sell it all to Europe and the US and China. But what if, say, Brazil has some technology and knowledge that we can pass to Bolivia, which has the natural resources to use the technological knowledge? This regional integration is the only way in which Latin America can be independent from the US and from China.
So for us to have Venezuela and Cuba strong again, without any economic blockades, will help a lot in building this regional integration. We believe that Lula has the moral legitimacy to dialogue with all the other countries and bring back this plan of building a very strong regional integration process.
NACLA: As the MST, what's your dream in terms of a new Brazil?
CB: We have seen a very long period of decrease in people's mobilization in Brazil. From the late 1990s the mobilization started decreasing and we weren't able to remobilize people. I think this is our biggest dream: we need to reorganize the Brazilian working class. It's very challenging, but it's very possible. There is no government that is going to solve the problems of the people. There are only ways to make it easier for us to find the way to solve our own problems. Building people's power, giving space for the people to organize to participate, and to really press and achieve the structural change that we need in this country. But we can only do that if we can change the level of apathy that the working classes in Brazil are living under for so many years.
And even the organized left after so many defeats, like the parliamentary coup against Dilma, and then Lula's imprisonment, and then Bolsonaro’s election, it’s like the organized left was becoming very depressed. This is the other reason why we need to take Bolsonaro out of the government: so that the left and the people can build their self-esteem again, to be able to change things in this country.