The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 26           August 4, 2003  
Rural workers in Brazil
press fight for land
Land takeovers, public employee strikes
worry Wall Street
(front page)
Reuters/Bruno Domingos
Members of Celina's Settlement, established by landless Brazilian women on land they took over in the state of Pemambuco, northeast Brazil, weed field June 13.

The Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) in Brazil has launched some 120 land occupations this year and is demanding the government step up land distribution to the dispossessed, while the owners of vast latifundia are adamant in their calls for the administration to clamp down on those who challenge their hold on property.

The new administration of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in the nation of 165 million people—Latin America’s most populous— initiated proposals for cuts in pensions recently. In response, thousands of public employees walked out for several days in early July to oppose these cuts—the most prominent strikes since da Silva took office six months earlier.

These developments reflect a growing self-confidence among Brazil’s toilers in fighting to defend their livelihoods. They increasingly worry Wall Street, especially since Brazil has a ballooning foreign debt to imperialist financial institutions of $260 billion.

The sharpening struggle over land ownership and use has brought the new social-democratic administration into conflict with landless rural workers. Capitalist landowners, some of whom own tracts of territory as large as some European countries, are also dissatisfied with how the government is handling the crisis.

Leaders of the big landowners’ organizations are taking the new government to task for “not applying the law” to protect their wealth, while others have organized private militias to do the job themselves.

While the polarization in the countryside deepens, da Silva appears to have weathered the strike by government workers as he presses ahead with a pension “reform” plan that will cut benefits, raise the retirement age, and make pensions taxable.

Presented in the mid-1990s as a model of capitalist development in the semicolonial world, Brazil’s economy entered a tailspin in 1998 when the country’s gross domestic product contracted and unemployment soared. The downward spiral continued into 2002, with the real, Brazil’s currency, declining 35 percent, and inflation reaching double digits. The previous government of Fernando Enrique Cardoso received a $41.5 billion “rescue” loan from the International Monetary Fund in exchange for cuts in social security and tax increases that reduced the take-home pay of most working people.

Da Silva took office January 1 after a landslide victory in last October’s presidential ballot as the candidate of the Workers Party (PT). His election, like that of Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, registered the rising expectations among working people in these countries, who have been devastated by the effects of economic depression and attacks by the outgoing regimes on basic social programs.  
Rise in land seizures
The number of land occupations has reached its highest point since March, when the MST ended its two-month moratorium on the actions, initiated as a good-faith gesture to the new president. Confrontations with landlords have been sharpest in the western state of Sao Paolo, where large-scale agricultural production is centered, but have also occurred in at least 20 of the nation’s 26 states.

In Presidente Epitacio, 3,500 families have set up a camp to demand land and resources. When the number of families reaches 5,000—about half the population of the city—the MST plans to march into the nearby city of Presidente Prudente, where some of the ranchers live, to press the demands of the landless. The mayor said he’ll block the entrance to the city.

“Nobody wants to do anything illegal,” Antonio Santos, 38, told the Wall Street Journal in a July 10 dispatch, “but we’ll do what we must to survive.” Santos and his family moved to the camp in June after he lost his job in a nearby slaughterhouse.

Government statistics indicate that the number of land seizures has increased by 62 percent in the first half of 2003 in comparison with the same period last year.

Agricultural exports have played a key role in the recovery in profits for Brazilian capitalists since Lula’ election, accounting for a projected $23 billion trade surplus this year. The real’s precipitous devaluation has given such exports a big boost. Today Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of raw sugar, second-largest exporter of soybeans, and third-largest exporter of beef.

The distribution of land in Brazil is among the most unequal in the world. Nearly half of the arable territory in the country is owned by a mere 3 percent of the population, while the poorest 40 percent own just 1 percent of the land. The MST is demanding land for 1 million families by 2006 as a first step in addressing the gross disparity in land ownership.

Lula is trying to bring the MST actions to a halt by seeking to assure the rural population that such actions are not needed, while demagogically identifying with the need for agrarian reform. “I do not imagine that in a country of this size, with the amount of land that it has, a violent occupation is necessary,” he said in June.

At a press conference that followed a meeting with MST leaders at one of the group’s camps in July, Lula put on an MST cap. One MST representative said that “the government plays on our team.” Business leaders, meanwhile, were outraged by the act and bitterly complained that the da Silva administration has not cracked down on the “illegal” land seizures.

“It is totally unacceptable that the government opened its doors to a violent guerrilla group like the MST,” said Humberto Sa of the Movement of anti-MST Rural Producers.

Sa is the owner of 1,200 acres in the state of Parana, and is one of many ranchers who have formed militias to put a stop to the occupations by landless workers. “The constitution of the country gives us that right,” he stated.

While it is not new for big landlords in Brazil to organize armed thugs, “The militia movement is growing stronger because there is the feeling that the government has strong links with the landless movement and ranchers know they must protect themselves,” said one leader of the Democratic Ruralist Union.

The Brazilian government has acknowledged the killing of 13 landless workers this year. MST leaders put the figure much higher, charging that 1,500 of their members have been killed in the fight for land in the last four years.

MST leader Jose Rainha was arrested July 11 in Teodoro Sampaio, Sao Paolo state, on charges related to a land occupation three years earlier. In 2000 Rainha defeated an 11-year government campaign to frame him up on murder charges arising from the struggle for land.  
Pension ‘reform’
In the face of public employees’ strikes against pension “reform,” a key goal of his administration, da Silva made modest changes to the plan when he presented it to Congress July 17. Press reports indicated that 40-50 percent of government workers joined the walkouts that began July 6. The strikes involved a wide range of public employees—from hospital workers and university professors, to customs officials and tax collectors. They ended when Lula promised to make small concessions. The largest trade union federation, the Unified Confederation of Workers, which is tied to the governing PT, didn’t join in the strike.

The new legislation projects the elimination of some $17 billion from pensions over the next 20 years, making the funds available for payment on Brazil’s $260 billion foreign debt. The government had initially proposed cuts 3 percent higher than this amount. The estimated 4 million government workers will see a reduction in their pensions and an additional bite in the form of a new 11 percent tax on their retirement pay. The plan projects a ceiling of $828 per month on state and private pensions. Furthermore, employees will now be required to have worked 35 years, at least 20 of them as a civil servant. The minimum retirement age is to be raised by seven years for both men and women, to 60 and 55, respectively.

“We were betrayed,” said one retiree of Lula’s role in steering the attack on pensions. “Be sure that this will have a political cost for the government. People are angry.”  
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