Social movements in Latin America: MST

Latin America has become an epicentre of innovations in the social and political terrain (Sader xiii, 9). The change of political landscape was the result of both the democratization process from the early 80’s on and implementation of neoliberal policies within the Washington Consensus under Geogre H. W. Bush mandate. At the same time the massive outflow of profits, interest payments and royalties and the growing exploitation and impoverishment of the working people led to the growth of »new social movements« throughout the 1990’s (Petras 2009). It has to be stressed that the adjective »new« refers to different circumstances in which movements are functioning and not in the sense that social movements are a completely new phenomenon in society.

At the close of the twentieth century, Latin America underwent a number of changes in the socio-political panorama involving the agrarian and workers sectors. Among the more important peasant movements that emerged were the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation-EZLN) in Mexico, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers’ Movement-MST) in Brazil, and the Confederación de Naciones Indígenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador-CONAIE) in Ecuador, along with important Paraguayan and Bolivian movements (Teubal 2009:11).

Brazil is certainly a trending topic at the moment. Rio de Janeiro and the “cleaning of favelas” (Wacquant 2003); “urban fear” in São Paulo (Sílvia De Moraes Rial and Grossi 2002); indigenous peoples in Amazonia and in Andes (Hoffman French 2004; Carvalho 2000; Walch 2005); “violence and music”. It will not be and exaggeration if I compare this topics with the Mediterranean twin “shame and honour” (Albera 1999; Herzfeld 2003) and with the Orientalism between romantic and wild East (Said 1978). Also in the Balkans several anthropologists observed similar ambivalence and Muršič claims that “we must not overlook the double nature of stereotypes. Every stereotype has both, and affirmative and a neglecting component. In its deeply rooted ambivalence (or manifold valence) it can function in various ways (Muršič 2007:88). In trying to avoid stereotyping I will present a different, less know fight, that some people living in Brazil fight for almost 20 years now, before mentioned movement MST (Landless Rural Workers’ Movement).

The Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST), with over 300,000 active members and over 350,000 peasant families settled in co-operatives throughout the country, represented the biggest and best organized social movement in Latin America. The MST built a broad network of supporters and allies in other social movements, like the urban Homeless Movement, the Catholic Pastoral Rural (Rural Pastoral Agency) and sectors of the trade union movement (CUT), as well as the left-wing of the Workers Party (PT) and progressive academic faculty and students. The MST succeeded through ‘direct action’ tactics, such as organizing mass ‘land occupations’, which settled hundreds of thousands of landless rural workers and their families on the fallow lands of giant latifundistas. They successfully put agrarian reform on the national agenda and contributed to the electoral victory of the putative center-left Workers Party presidential candidate Ignacio ‘Lula’ Da Silva in the 2002 elections (Petras 2009).

The MST’s rural settlements are characterized by cooperative relations, collective planning, and self-management. Solidarity, social justice, and autonomy are its fundamental ethical values. It has established a monthly newspaper to communicate its ideas, an educational system based on the “work-and-study” method, and an intense process of political-ideological formation through study groups on radical theory. Within these groups is emerging a newly developed consciousness of the necessity for social owner- ship of the means of production (Martins 2000). Hammond explores the appearance of MST movement in the media and claims that the treatment of the MST in the Brazilian media is diverse, presenting a mixture of sympathy and hostility. The sympathetic coverage itself varies, moreover, in acknowledging the movement’s political significance (Hammond 2004).

»The National March for Land Reform, Employment, and Justice« of 1997, led by the MST, was an effective instrument for articulating the demands of the working sectors and the poorest population. The two-month-long march arrived in Brasilia with the support of the left political parties, the press, and the church. The marchers publicly presented the authorities with a set of proposals that constituted the outline of the Popular Project, intended to be an alternative to the neoliberal policies adopted by the international capitalism and implemented by the Brazilian state (Martins 2000).

The MST practice is being closely observed by the landless themselves and by Brazilian society in general, not as a laboratory experiment in free-market policy, as Latin America has been used in the past decade, but as the embryo of a new society that will emerge from the efforts of the popular sectors. The Popular Project, involving mass, direct, radical, continuous, and sustainable actions of resistance, has to be constructed in a process oriented from the base that respects the social heritage, conceives of alternatives for the majority, presents ideas in a simple and convincing way, transforms ideas into projects for structural change, makes people understand and fight for them, and mobilizes forces (Martins 2000).

Throughout the American continent, agrarian communities are engaged in ways of life that differ greatly from those fostered by the agrarian reforms of the twentieth century. There is a new emphasis on the autonomy of communities, the production of food in accordance with communal needs and food sovereignty, and respect for traditional cultures, the environment, and biodiversity. Some indigenous communities, such as the juntas de buen gobierno in Chiapas, have achieved substantial democratic and social improvements. This can also be said with regard to the Brazilian settlements, which have often been turned into successful cooperatives (Giarracca et al, 2006).


Albera, Dionigi

1999    »The Mediterranean as an Anthropological Laboratory.« Anales de la Fundación Jaquin Costa, pp. 215-232

Carvalho, Georgia O.

2000    »The Politics of Indigenous Land Rights in Brazil.« Bulletin of Latin American Research, 19(4), pp. 461-478.

Giarracca, Norma

2003    La protesta agrorural en la Argentina. In: José Seoane, ed. »Movimientos sociales y conflicto en América Latina.« Buenos Aires: CLACSO, pp. 197-209.

Hammond, John L.

2004    »The MST and the Media: Competing Images of the Brazilian Landless Farmworkers’ Movement.« Latin American Politics and Society, 46(4), pp. 61-90.

Herzfeld, Michael

2003    »Localism and the Logic of nationalistic Folklore: Cretan Reflections.« Comparative Studies in Society and History, 43, pp. 281-310.

Jezernik, Božidar, Rajko Muršič in Alenka Bartulovič, ur.

2007    »Europe and its Other: notes on the Balkans.« Ljubljana: Filozofska fakulteta.

Martins Dias, Monica

2000    »The MST Challenge to Neoliberalism.« Latin American Perspectives, 27(5), pp. 33-45.

Petras, James

2009    Latin America: Social Movements in Times of Economic Crises. Global Research, 12. 8. 2009. Available at: 5. 5. 2013.

Sader, Emir

2011    The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left. London: Verso.

Sílvia De Moraes Rial, Carmen and Pillar Grossi

2002    Urban fear in Brazil: From the favelas to The Truman Show. In: »Urban Ethnic encounter. Erdentug, Aygen in Freek Colombijn«, eds. »Urban Ethnic encounters: the spatial consequences.« London in New York: Routlege, pp. 109-126.

Said, Edward

1978    »Orientalism.« New York: Vintage Books

Teubal, Miguel

2009    »Agrarian Reform and Social Movements in the Age of Globalization: Latin America at theDawn of the Twenty-first.« Latin American Perspectives, 36(4), pp. 9-20.

Wacquant, Loic

2003    »Toward a Dictatorship over the poor? Notes on the Penelization of poverty in Brazil?« Punishment and Society, 5(2), pp. 197-205.

Walsh, Michael

2005    »Will Indigenous Languages Survive?« Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, pp. 293-315.

On National and Regional Identities: case from Brazil and Greece

 The author of the book Tradition Matters: a modern Gaúcho tradition in Brazil, Ruben George Oliven wishes to explain the development and needed processes of making a national state (unification, building a national identity etc.) in contrast with regionalism, which emphasizes the peculiarities of the region within national borders with the Brazilian example of its southernmost region Rio Grande do Sul (RS). He defends the thesis that the term nationalism and regionalism do not exist one without the other because they are the cause and the consequence of changing political, economic and cultural factors. In this way, gaucho identity, specific for RS, cannot exist without a Brazilian national state.

Social construction of gaúcho identity is based on the glorification of the rural past and the figure of a man on the horse from the southwest part of the region RS. Gaúcho was living in vast areas of wilderness, always accompanied by a horse. He was strong, fateful and proud. He represents the ideal of a free and brave individual, which serves as an example for other ethnic groups (like German, Italian and Polish). He unifies people living in the region and at the same time differentiates from others regions of Brazil. Special relationship that gaúchos have with the Brazilian state is represented in theirs regional flag. It consists of three colors: green and yellow – national colors, separated by a red line which stands for the blood that was split in the history of the region. In the center if the flag is the coat of arms where is written: “Freedom, equality and humanity” and “Rio Grandian Republic, 20. September 1985”. Why the blood and Republic? Because according to the Gaúchos tradition, they experienced many wars that the rest of the country did not. Being at the border of Hispanic and Lusophonic part of the continent caused cultural and armed fights, there were wars inside the region and also the region itself was in war with the Brazilian state. Former happened in 1985 and lasted for almost 10 years. It was named the Farroupilha revolution in which the region gain independence for a short period of time. The beginning of the Farroupilha is inaugurated today as the most important regional celebration.

Ethnical regionalism, shortly described above, is certainly not the only one in the Latin America and the rest of the world. One European example would be the island of Crete and its special relationship to the national state, Greece. In the article Localism and the logic of nationalistic folklore: Cretan Reflections, author explains the presumably irresolvable paradox of the promotion of localist text in the service of an inclusive national entity. The object of nation-state, in the logic of the European nationalism, is to unify all potentially divergent cultural and social entities within a single framework, so that localist sentiment ceases to represent the threat of political separatism. Cretan folklore provided a useful set of materials for objectifying and conceptualizing the complex tensions that subsisted in the fractious, disobedient, but overwhelmingly loyal island. In this sense Cretans are more “greek” than the Greeks and they can only express theirs local identity inside the national state.

Literature and Further Readings:

Giordano, Christian. 2007 “Ethnic versus Cosmopolitan Regionalism? For a Political Anthropology of Local Identity Construction in a Globalized World-System.” Ethnologia Balcanica 11, 44-58.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983 “Nations and nationalism.” Oxford: Blackwell.

Herzfeld, Michael. 2003. Localism and the Logic of nationalistic Folklore: Cretan Reflections. Comparative Studies in Society and History 43, 281-310.

Oliven, Ruben, George. 1996.Tradition matters: modern gaúcho identity in Brazil.New York: Columbia University Press.

Thiesse, Anna, Marie. 2005: National identities: a transnational paradigm.” V: Dieckhoff, Alain in Christophe Jaffrelor, ur. Revisiting nationalism. Paris: Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, 122-144.