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).


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