MST on the March for Agrarian Reform and Changes in the Lula Government’s Neoliberal Economic Policy

*The author is Abdurazack Karriem of the Department of City and Regional Plannin at Cornell University.

"A reforma agraria se faz no campo, mas se ganha na cidade" – MST slogan
(You make agrarian reform in the countryside, but you win it in the cities)

"Marches always represent the disposition to struggle, of moving forward. They demonstrate
the extreme degree of sacrifice by men, women and children, who challenge themselves to
walk hundreds of kilometers for an ideal: to see land shared." - MST

On 2 May 2005, over 12,000 members and supporters of the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST) left the city of Goiania and embarked upon a two week, 230 km, ‘National March for Agrarian Reform’ to the federal capital, Brasilia. The sea of marchers waving their red MST flags and banners did not only call for agrarian reform, they demanded radical changes in the Lula government’s neoliberal economic policies.

In its 21 year history, marches have been an important ingredient in the MST’s growth from a small regional movement in southern Brazil into the largest, most organized and dynamic social movement in Brazilian history. The objective of most of these marches was to take the demands of the landless to and win the support of the population in local towns, provincial capitals and the national capital. The building of links with urban sectors of society has allowed the MST to overcome the ‘isolation’ of rural struggles and win popular support for agrarian reform. This strategy is crucial in a country that is 80% urbanized.

The MST draws inspiration from many historic marches ranging from Gandhi’s salt march, Martin Luther King’s civil rights march on Washington DC, and the Prestes Column’s 25,000 km march across Brazil against elite domination of the rural and urban poor. Of the many marches that the MST has undertaken, three stand out. Most of these marches were shaped by the particular conjunctures of their time. In October 1985, the newly born MST carried out its largest land occupation as 2,500 families took over the 9,500 hectare Fazenda Anoni estate. However, two years later the tent camp of 7,000 people had still not been settled on land. The MST was at a crossroads: patiently wait for the government to fulfill its promises or march on the provincial capital, Porto Alegre and pressure the government to settle the families? The MST decided on the latter. After marching 450 km over 27 days, the marchers were welcomed by 10,000 Porto Alegrenses and given the keys to the city by the mayor. The march was instrumental in placing land reform on the national agenda, in the settlement of the Fazenda Anonni families, and served as the launching pad for the growth of the MST into a national movement.

The second major march took place in another difficult conjuncture. During the mid-1990s, the neoliberal Cardoso administration --after failing in its efforts to co-opt the MST-- utilized the full arsenal of the state machinery (the judiciary, intelligence agency, the police and the media) to vilify, criminalize and repress the MST and its strategy of occupying unproductive farms. Scores of MST members were arrested on trumped up charges of murder. In 1996, 19 MST members were killed and a further 69 wounded (many shot in the back) by the military police while on a peaceful march on the highway at Eldorado dos Carajas protesting unfulfilled government promises. The MST went on the offensive and in February 1997 organized a two month national march for ‘Land Reform, Employment and Justice,’ to the center of political power in Brasília. One thousand three hundred MST members left from three corners of Brazil and covered 1500 km to arrive in the nation’s capital on 17 April 1997, the first anniversary of the Eldorado dos Carajas massacre.

The March highlighted that a year later none of the military police officers implicated in the massacre had been arrested. The reference to unemployment was a clear allusion to President Cardoso’s trade liberalization policies that forced thousands of family farmers off the land, to the job losses associated with privatization of state enterprises, and to the high interest rate policy which was bankrupting factories and leading to rising unemployment. The MST thus demonstrated how local struggles for agrarian reform are connected to the broader struggle against neoliberal policies.

Enroute to Brasília, the marchers were warmly received by residents of small towns who wanted to know more about the lives of the Sem Terra (the landless) as MST members are popularly referred to. The Sem Terra were invited to address schools and churches to explain the purpose of the march, to talk about life in their plastic tent camps, and of their struggle for a better life. As the marchers converged onto Brasília they were welcomed by over 100,000 people. The march, which was widely covered by the print and electronic media, sparked the popular imagination and generated admiration and pride at the determination of a group of people who were willing to fight for their ideals. A poll taken during the march showed that over 80% of Brazilians supported agrarian reform and that the Cardoso government had not done enough to promote agrarian reform and combat rural violence. Popular support for land reform and the Sem Terra forced President Cardoso to back down from his efforts to criminalize and repress the MST.

The MST national march to Brasília during May 2005, unlike the 1997 march, did not take place in a context of repression but one of cooptation and unfulfilled promises from a government that declared land reform a priority. The 2005 march was offensive rather than defensive and had as its objective changes in the Lula government’s neoliberal macro-economic policy, which undermined the land reform program. To understand the significance of the 2005 March, it is necessary to briefly situate it in its political context.

The Context to the 2005 March: The Workers Party (PT) and Lula in Power

In October 2002, over 52 million Brazilians voted Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metal worker, as their president. Lula came into office on a strong platform of change to undo a decade of neoliberal rule. He had broad popular support from the working class, the middle class and sections of the national bourgeoisie, all of whom had to a lesser or greater extent been squeezed by neoliberal policies. Despite his left rhetoric, Lula not only gave continuity to but actually deepened the neoliberal agenda of the previous administration. The Lula government voluntarily increased the primary budget surplus target of 3.75% of GDP (initially agreed to with the IMF) to 4.25% to gain the confidence of the markets. The IMF imposed primary budget surpluses are generated to service interest payments on Brazil’s debt. To meet the self-imposed target of 4.25%, the Finance Ministry drastically curbed public spending. In 2003, rigid monetary and fiscal measures resulted in the economy contracting by 0.2%, resulting in rising unemployment, declines in worker income, and reductions in family consumption. During 2003-2004 the Lula government spent R$273 billion (roughly $110 billion) just servicing interest payments on debt. Instead of tackling Brazil’s social debt, Lula religiously prioritized debt payments.

Lula and many of the NGO and social movement activists who entered government called on popular movements to be patient, arguing that the Brazilian state could not be transformed overnight and that the conservative turn in economic policy was transitional. Instead of promoting and reinforcing popular mobilizations in support of a progressive agenda, the moderate tendency in the PT and the Lula government through a discourse of patience demobilized popular forces while at the same time reinforcing the “liberal ideology of private property and the business class as the principal protagonists of society.