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.


The difference in “discovery and invention” of the Americas: looking at the national identities from a view of decoloniality

Walter D. Mignolo in his book The Idea of Latin America presents two – but complementary – ways in which the book can be read and I would suggest the same for this short article. Readers can simply acknowledge that America was not discovered but invented, and from there follow the path that made of “Latin” America an extension of the initial imperial/colonial invention. The second, more detailed description would present the argument of the invention of America itself as an attempt to shift the geography, and the geopolitics of knowledge, of critical theory (as introduced by the Frankfurt School in the 1930s) to a new terrain of decoloniality. The first reading can still be performed within the paradigm of modernity that emphasizes the linear evolution of concepts and, above all, newness. The second reading, however, demands to be performed within the paradigm of (de)coloniality that implies modernity but emphasizes “co-existence” and simultaneity instead (Mignolo 2006-xix).

Discovery” is the dominant, imperial version of what happened (the version that became “reality,” the ontological dimension of history that blends what happened with the interpretation of what happened), while “invention” opens the window of possibility for decolonizing knowledge. That is, if “discovery” is an imperial interpretation, “invention” is not just a different interpretation but a move to decolonize imperial knowledge. Which one is the true one is a moot question. The point is not which of the two interpretations better “represents the event” but, rather, what the power differential in the domain of knowledge is. And what we have here are two interpretations, one offering the imperial vision of the event, and the other the decolonial vision. Both co-exist in different paradigms: the imperial paradigm imposes and maintains the dominant view (which all students learn from elementary to high school and which is disseminated in popular culture and the media). The decolonial paradigm struggles to bring into intervening existence an-other interpretation that brings forward, on the one hand, a silenced view of the event and, on the other, shows the limits of imperial ideology disguised as the true (and total) interpretation of the events.

Coloniality of power” is composed of imperial appropriation of land, exploitation of labor, and control of finance; control of authority; control of gender and sexuality; and control of knowledge and subjectivity (Mignolo 2006:33). With this understanding we can proceed to the explanation of national identities or national consciousness, as Franzt Fanon describes it in his influential book The Wretched of the Earth (although it was not so influential when it was released. He was a French Caribbean and it lasted almost 40 years for an English translation) in decolonizing paradigm:

“National consciousness is nothing but a crude, empty fragile shell. The cracks in it explain how easy it is for young independent countries to switch back from nation to ethnic group and from state to tribe-a regression which is so terribly detrimental and prejudicial to the development of the nation and national unity” (Fanon 1963:22)

In the foreword Homi K. Bhabha explains that it is, of course, one of the most significant lessons of the postcolonial experience that no nation is simply young or old, new or ancient, despite the date of its independence. “New” national, international, or global emergences create an unsettling sense of transition, as if history is at a turning point; and it is in such incubational moments – Antonio Gramsci’s word for the perceived “newness” of change – that we experience the palimpsestical imprints of past, present, and future in peculiarly contemporary figures of time and meaning (Homi K. Bhabha2006:xvi).

Literature and Further Readings

Bhabha, Homi, K. 1990. Nations and Narration. London: Routledge.

Dussel, Enrique. 1995: The Invention of the Americas. New York: Continuum.

Fanon, Frantz. 2006: The wretched of the Earth. Edited by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 2007: The Prison Notebooks. Ed. Joseph A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press.

 Mignolo, Walter, D. 2006. The Idea of Latin America. Oxford: Blackwell.