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Peasant Movements in Latin America

Latin America and the Caribbean

At the end of the seventies, many experts argued that peasant movements were an anachronistic, declining force for social transformation. These observers failed to see or understand the emergence of a new generation of modern peasant leaders based on mass organizations, capable of compensating for demographic changes through greater organization and through coalition building with urban-poor neighborhood organizations and trade unions. Peasant organizations have more than made up for quantitative losses in relative population with qualitative gains in organization, leadership, strategies and tactics.

The Significance of the Rural Struggle

Monographs, testimonials, field research and visual accounts provide a rich and extensive mosaic of mass peasant activity over the past two decades, providing irrefutable evidence of the vibrant and dynamic role that rural movements still play throughout most of Latin America in different moments in time.

Almost all of the major peasant movements in Latin America engage in local, national and even international struggles and campaigns. In many cases, local struggles over immediate grievances like human-rights violations became the basis for national mobilizations and international solidarity campaigns. As well, most of the movements have built “local” bases of political hegemony as a springboard to national power and challenges for state power, with the cases of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and Bolivia’s cocaleros (coca farmers) being illustrative. And, while regaining their ethnic or Indian/African-American rights and autonomy are central to many peasant movements, they are strongly linked to class interests and horizontal alliances with other exploited classes.

In times of severe political repression or political disillusionment, peasant movements may shift their agendas to local demands, specific projects and defensive activities. In periods of expanding membership and victorious struggles, peasant movements tend to raise national issues and challenge the authority of the central political powers.

Most of the peasant movements directly engage in one or another form of political action. They have played a leading role in the fight against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA) in Brazil, Central America (especially Guatemala), Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico. Peasant movements have led the fight against genetically modified and chemically based agriculture promoted by Monsanto in favour of ecologically sound cultivation. Peasant movements have led the struggle against fumigation of food crops and in defense of coca farming–an important source of family income, with a multiplier effect throughout the economy. Peasant leaders demand that Washington fight drugs by prosecuting its elite allies, who process and traffic, and the U.S. banks, which “wash” illegal drug profits. Peasant movements have been part of national coalitions against privatization legislation, U.S. military bases and payment of the illegal foreign debt. Direct action by peasant movements have delayed or blocked “austerity” programs promoted by the IMF. Equally important, peasant movements have initiated movements that have “detonated” larger urban activities–like the uprising in Bolivia in October, 2003; that of the Zapatistas in January, 1994; the seizure of Ecuador’s Congress in 2000; and Brazil’s land-occupation movements of the new millennium.

Direct Action or Electoral Politics?

Over the past 25 years, direct-action methods have been far more effective and positive than electoral strategies in securing short- and medium-term peasant goals, regardless of the identity of the electoral party. In Ecuador, for example, the CONAIE was able through direct action to overthrow two corrupt neoliberal presidents, secure positive social reforms and strengthen its mass support in civil society. However, when CONAIE turned toward electoral politics and supported President Gutiérrez, the results were totally negative: declines in social expenditures, greater political repression and divisions and disillusionment in the movement.

In Brazil, peasant movements relying on direct-action strategies were able to expropriate large estates through occupations and road blockages–and, in Bolivia, to overthrow corrupt neoliberal presidents. However, when the movements relied on electoral “centre-left” politicians, the results were wholly negative: Under the Lula regime in Brazil, the Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST) witnessed a significant decline in land appropriations, increased pressure from and displacements by agro-exporting elites and high levels of repression. Bolivia’s cocaleros, who initially supported President Mesa, suffered coca-eradication programs, a regressive petroleum law providing few resources for rural development and a series of broken agreements.

The (Usually Reactionary) Role of the State

Most governments, both federal and provincial, have been enemies of peasant movements. The Mexican state has severely repressed peasant movements in Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca and throughout the southern-central area of the country. In Colombia, thousands of peasant leaders have been assassinated by paramilitary groups associated with the armed forces, which have displaced over three million peasants in pursuit of a scorched-earth policy. In Brazil, before and during the Lula presidency, scores of peasant activists, religious and human-rights advocates have been murdered by local gunmen, with the complicity of provincial judges, police chiefs and the malignant neglect of the federal government. Even in Venezuela under President Chavez, over 110 peasant leaders–many land-reform beneficiaries–have been murdered between 2001 and 2004 by landlords’ “private armies” with the complicity of local officials. In other words, with rare exceptions, peasant movements have achieved positive changes despite the state, not because of it.

This does not mean that the state is always and everywhere an enemy of peasant demands. What is crucialy important is the class character of the state and the ideological orientation of its executive. The Cuban Revolution is illustrative of the possibilities of synergy between peasant mobilization and positive state intervention. In Venezuela, similar possibilities exist because, under Chavez, Venezuela has favourable relations between peasant activists and the government.

Lula’s Brazil, on the other hand, consists of a neoliberal regime clearly run by and for agribusiness. However, even in cases where the initial state response is negative, mass peasant pressure organized with urban coalitions, including church, university, human-rights and trade-union organizations (and including some progressive parliamentary deputies) can force regimes to finance land expropriations and agricultural cooperatives. This, as has been the case in Brazil.

A Peasant Paradox

There are several reasons for the prominence of peasant movements today. Neoliberal policies have had a “pincer” effect on the peasantry. They promote the importation of heavily subsidized food and other agricultural products, driving down prices and bankrupting peasant producers. And, in the drive to accumulate foreign exchange, neoliberal regimes encourage the expansion of the agro-export sector, leading to the expulsion of peasant producers from the land.

Bankruptcy and expulsion mean not only unemployment or a decline in income, but loss of place of residence, loss of community and family ties–a deeply alienating experience. The threats and realities posed by neoliberalism are especially profound in rural areas, as there are no alternative sites of habitation, community and employment in the countryside.

Nevertheless, a new peasant leadership has emerged–much better educated, politicized and independent of the tutelage of urban elites and party machines, more knowledgeable of national and international politics and more free than past peasant leaders from the hegemonic influence of provincial lawyers and other professionals. Moreover, unlike the older urban trade unions and their leaders, who have been bureaucratized and embedded in “tripartite” commissions, the new peasant movements have emerged on the basis of independent class and ethnic struggles, which challenge trade agreements between the local ruling classes and the imperial state.

The upsurge of peasant movements during the last decade, however, is uneven in time and place. Major peasant movements have passed through high and low moments of organization and activity. Likewise, the relative strength of the movements varies greatly from country to country, depending on the nature and policies of the state. Given this complex picture, it is difficult to make universal generalizations about “the peasant movements” at any particular time and place.

At the “high end” of peasant organization and struggle–Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador–peasant movements are engaged in long-term, large-scale struggles, which have expropriated numerous latifundios and/or overthrown regimes.

At the “middle levels” of organization and struggle–Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and El Salvador–militant and active movements exercise regional power that would be even stronger if they had not suffered severe repression.

At the “low end” of peasant activity and organization are the movements in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela. However, because of the favourable policies of Venezuela’s President Chavez toward agrarian reform, and his positive policy toward land distribution and peasant organization and co-operatives, a significant peasant movement has emerged there since early 2000. Moreover, in Argentina, while peasant movements have little national impact, they have developed regional influence in the northeast, in Santiago de Estero, Formosa and other provinces.

Powerful peasant movements and organizations occur in countries with large cohesive Indian communities (Bolivia, Ecuador and Guatemala); where landless rural workers (Brazil) and peasants (Colombia) have been displaced; where large-scale agribusiness interests have bankrupted small producers (Paraguay); and where U.S. imperialist clients have launched coca-eradication programs without providing meaningful alternatives (Peru, Colombia and Bolivia).

A Period of Intense Struggles

The great intensity of peasant struggles between the mid-eighties and early 2000 was driven by greater ethnic-class consciousness, especially among Indian communities, leading to massive uprisings in Ecuador (CONAIE), armed resistance in Mexico (the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) and the peasant movements in Guerrero, the cocaleros in Cochabamba and the Altiplano in Bolivia, and the coca farmers of Peru.

Beginning in 1985 and continuing into 2002, Brazil’s MST occupied thousands of latifundios and settled over 350,000 rural families in cooperatives and family farms. But the successes of the peasant movements were not uniform; Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador and Colombia suffered intense repression, leading in some cases to severe diminution of mass activity. Nevertheless, the major successes of the peasant movements in advancing their rural agenda of greater Indian autonomy and self-government, agrarian reform, state protection and financing and opposition to ALCA attracted attention from all political sectors.

The Rise of the “Centre-Left”

Washington under Bush (father and son) and Clinton promoted neoliberalism via the militarization of Latin America through Plan Colombia, Plan Andino and “anti-terrorist” policies. The disintegration and discredit of neoliberal regimes led to the emergence of so-called “centre-left” political leaders and electoral coalitions. Until the late 1990s, the peasant movements’ success was based on independent class politics using direct action, with tactical coalitions with other political forces. However, the recent rise of the “centre-left” electoral politicians and their promises to “oppose” neoliberalism led to damaging alliances for the peasant movements. In Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and elsewhere, peasant movements allied themselves with presidents (Gutiérrez, Mesa and Lula) and parties, which, soon after the elections, embraced neoliberal policies, agribusiness strategies and repressive policies toward the peasant movements. The effects of this turn toward electoral alliances were very damaging to peasant movements, and led to a decline in organization and activity.

In Ecuador, CONAIE suffered a loss of confidence among its bases, divisions in the organization and a weakening of its capacity to mobilize on a national basis. In Bolivia, Evo Morales and his cocalero organization support for neoliberal President Carlos Mesa divided the mass movement and sustained the reactionary regime for a year, allowing for the reconsolidation of the weakened traditional parties. In Brazil, for over two years the MST supported the neoliberal regime of Lula da Silva. During this time, the agrarian reform agenda stagnated, land occupations were stalled and agribusiness prospered at the expense of the landless workers, family farmers, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the massive expansion of GM (genetically modified) farming by agro-exporters.

The Difficulties of Making Urban-Rural Coalitions

The most effective alliances and actions for popular urban peasant alliances seeking positive outcomes for the rural poor over the past 25 years have involved “horizontal coalitions” engaged in extra-parliamentary actions.

In Ecuador, for example, CONAIE, supported by the major trade unions (petroleum, electrical and construction workers and teachers) was able to overthrow two neoliberal regimes (Bucaram and Mahuad) and to limit temporarily the neoliberal agenda. In contrast, when CONAIE allied itself with the electoral forces of Lucio Gutiérrez, it suffered severe losses of social support and a regressive IMF program.

Likewise, in Bolivia, the peasant movements, cocaleros and Indian organizations, relying on a broad “horizontal” coalition of miners, urban poor and trade unionists of La Paz and Cochabamba, succeeded in overthrowing the repressive neoliberal regime of Sanchez de Losada. Subsequently, the peasant movement was severely weakened when one of its key leaders, parliamentary deputy Evo Morales, helped the neoliberal Carlos Mesa to further his electoral ambitions (for the presidential elections of 2007).

While horizontal coalitions between peasant and urban organizations have produced positive results, they are not easy to come by. For example, for the last 20 years the Brazil’s MST has been trying to build urban alliances, but with mixed results. During the 1980s, when the trade-union confederation CUT was formed based on factory delegates meeting in general assemblies, there were frequent mass mobilizations with the MST. During the 1990s and later, however, as the CUT became bureaucratized and dependent upon tripartite social pacts, it was unwilling or unable to mobilize its bases in joint action with the MST. Despite the CUT’s claim to 15 million affiliates, and despite its “radical” declarations, it could turn out only a few thousand demonstrators, mostly full-time functionaries, in contrast to the tens of thousands mobilized by the MST. Venezuela is the only country where the peasant movements have achieved a kind of “vertical” and horizontal alliance. In fact, much of the growth and organization of the peasant movement is the product of the policies, especially agrarian reform policies, of the Chavez government. In contrast to the rest of Latin America, where the state has taken the side of the agribusiness elite and supported the neoliberal trade pact, ALCA, and U.S. imperialism, in Venezuela the government has moved to promote co-operatives and family farmers to make Venezuela self-sufficient in regard to food. The key factor differentiating the state-peasant relationship is the class composition of the state and its leadership; Chavez has built a popular bloc to promote his ideology of a mixed economy based on social welfare and financed by oil income.

There are several problems in the development of “horizontal alliances” and the creation of worker-peasant coalitions. First, trade unions and urban community organizations, weakened by neoliberal policies, which have created a massive, fragmented informal sector, have narrowed their focus to immediate wage and job issues instead of the larger political challenges affecting national struggles (like agrarian reform). Second, some trade-union leaders have racist attitudes toward working with “Indian” organizations and leaders on an equal basis or accepting the leadership of much more powerful peasant-Indian movements. Third, many of the urban-poor neighbourhoods are controlled by traditional political parties via “patronage electoral machines,” which limit their participation in joint actions with peasant movements. Occasionally this pattern is reversed, as is the case in Bolivia, where the urban nationhood or barrio organizations in El Alto have shared leadership with the peasant movements.

While recognizing the obstacles to urban-rural horizontal alliances, most of the militant peasant leaders are aware that national coalitions with urban allies are a necessary strategic goal in defeating neoliberalism and formulating a pro-peasant policy.

Marxism and the Peasantry

Marxist theorists have argued for the centrality of the industrial proletariat in the revolutionary struggle on the basis of its strategic position in production and because of the “social organization” of the factory system. Peasants, we were told, are “marginal” to the central operation of capital and, as individual property holders, are atomized and subject to “individualistic” behaviour.

Data from contemporary movements challenge these assumptions. In many countries, peasants have demonstrated a greater capacity for collective action and solidarity than many urban workers. Peasant movements have developed a whole panoply of direct-action tactics, including occupations of congressional and municipal buildings, large-scale marches, producers’ strikes and boycotts, barricades and road blockages. Frequently, too, their actions are more broadly focused on “national” or class issues than the narrow wage demands of unionized industrial workers.

While peasants may not play an essential role in capitalist production, they can and do play an essential role in the circulation of commodities and in the exchange process. More specifically, massive, extensive and prolonged road blockages prevent the circulation of export commodities by agro-mining and manufacturing enterprises, which in turn hampers the realization of profits. Peasants’ strategic role in paralyzing circulation has the same impact as factory workers downing their tools and stopping production: both undermine capitalist profitability and lead to dis-accumulation and crisis. Political intervention at strategic locations in the circuit of capitalist reproduction has given some dynamic peasant movements a strategic role in the process of social transformation.

Given the fact that no progressive agrarian legislation or executive decrees have been approved by any regime throughout Latin America for at least the last 20 years, direct action by peasant movements takes on a greater significance as the only vehicle for defending claims to land, credit, markets and protection against dumping. But peasant movements’ positive achievements have come at a huge cost in human lives, injuries and violent repression. In Colombia alone, over 20,000 peasant activists, leaders and human-rights supporters have been murdered by the terrorist U.S.-backed military and paramilitary gangs, while over three million have been forcibly displaced by state violence. In Brazil, between 1995 and 2005 under Cardoso and Lula, over 500 peasant and landless workers, leaders and church activists have been assassinated by the military police and hired assassins of land owners. Over 90 per cent of the crimes are unpunished. Peasants and State Power

Peasants have carried out significant protests and even achieved reforms, but, lacking state power, these reforms have been reversed when the movements ebbed. Promises of reform in the heat of struggle by centre-leftist rulers are broken, and the reconstituted power of the bourgeoisie has counter-attacked with savage “counter-terrorist” strategies. Without a strategy for state power, the tendency is for even militant leaders to step aside and let ambitious petit bourgeois politicians take their place, and, following an initial period of demagogic and symbolic concessions, to proceed in the footsteps of their neoliberal predecessors. So, the question of the state and political power, and political strategies to achieve political power, remains the leading challenge for the peasant movements. Peasant power has been most manifest as a negation of existing rulers and has been weakest in affirming a strategy for taking power. Even in cases where peasant movements have overthrown regimes, as in Ecuador in 2000 and Bolivia in 2003, they were not prepared to rule. Instead, they handed power over to neoliberal demagogues like Bolivia’s Mesa and Ecuador’s Gutiérrez.

Some revolutionary theorists argue that the problem of taking state power requires building a mass movement from below, forming coalitions with urban groups and mass organizations and developing a series of concrete struggles for reforms that build toward the creation of “dual power.” These are difficult and complex processes, and depend on local circumstances for their realization. When asked why peasants did not “take power” in Bolivia and Ecuador at the height of the uprisings, peasant leaders told me they “were not ready” and they “did not feel confident to govern.” Yet everywhere, peasant leaders and activists affirm that establishing a regime by and for the peasantry and against imperialism is a question of place or displacement, destitution or growth, life or death.

James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and argentina; co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Fernwood) and a member of the Canadian Dimension collective.

This article appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Battle for Canadian Universities).

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