Exclusive Interview

MST’s Stedile: “Activists shall not fear, we are fighting for justice”

Landless leader told Brasil de Fato that, despite threats, MST will not back off from social struggle

São Paulo |
MST leader João Pedro Stedile sat with Brasil de Fato radio interviewers last week to talk about Brazil's political scenario
MST leader João Pedro Stedile sat with Brasil de Fato radio interviewers last week to talk about Brazil's political scenario - José Eduardo Bernardes

The economist and co-founder of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and La Via Campesina International João Pedro Stedile spoke with Brasil de Fato Radio during the weekly show No Jardim da Política about the political outlook for Brazil in 2019.

The interview started with an examination on the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil last Tuesday, Jan. 1. Stedile pointed out “they know it was a fraudulent election and, therefore, it’s a government that does not represent the will of the majority of the Brazilian people.”

The landless leader also looked into the Bolsonaro administration’s economic plan and contradictions, as they use a nationalist discourse, while at the same time express a subjection to the interests of the United States.

Stedile also spoke about the new government’s explicit threats against people’s movements, which should not scare or push away activists from the social struggle, as they “are aware that we must be careful and not expose ourselves to this hatred, but that should not be a reason to fear. We are struggling so that our people improve their living conditions,” he said.

Read the highlights of the interview:

Brasil de Fato: What is your opinion on the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brasília?

João Pedro Stedile: I think the way the ministers and the president himself behaved was very enlightening, because they exposed what they really are: their ignorance, their aggressiveness, their disrespect for the Brazilian society. And they showed they will be a neofascist and authoritarian government that is completely disengaged from the people.

The positive surprise, as I see it, is that [before the inauguration] they were posting on social media claiming that they would have 500,000 people in Brasília [attending the ceremony], that they would have a massive turnout, and it was actually quite ludicrous, wasn’t it? Our comrades in Brasília said the turnout was around 50,000 people, mostly white, sectarian, ignorant middle class – that is, the regular folk stayed home.

The regular folk did not follow them, and they know it was a fraudulent election and, therefore, it’s a government that does not represent the majority of the Brazilian people – not even in number of voters, because Haddad’s [votes] and blank and invalid votes add up to the majority of voters.

They don’t represent the people because they are the result of manipulation through the powerful computers the global right wing provided them with, whether Israel, Taiwan, or Trump’s people, who helped them launch a bombardment of systematic lies during the [election] campaign that ended up misleading part of our people, who are depoliticized and unfortunately have not been able to achieve a higher cultural-political level in recent years.

Even before he was elected, Bolsonaro said Paulo Guedes would take care of his economic policy. But there are numerous contradictions around this, because while Bolsonaro maintains a nationalist discourse, Paulo Guedes is a neoliberal. How can we understand this economic plan and these contradictions?

The completely laissez faire economic policy they are going to implement will not solve the people’s problems. On the contrary, they need total freedom to do just what they want and increase profit margins. And there’s only one way to do that, which is increasing the exploitation of workers, of those who produce this wealth they want to hijack.

So even if the economy starts growing again, 2 to 3 percent like they are saying, it’s a growth based on big monopolies, exports, and financial capital – and that does not mean more jobs, more income distribution, and a solution to people’s financial problems.

Another point of a more public interest that caught my attention was Paulo Guedes’ speech when he took office, in which he said the biggest problem the Brazilian State faces is that banks have hijacked the Brazilian treasury and the State pays rent-seekers – Guedes himself being one of them – R$400 billion [more than US$100 billion] a year. So he exposed that, but he didn’t say how he is going to solve that, because this is fundamentally what is going to support the Bolsonaro administration. It’s an administration supported by financial capital, which means these rentiers, the agribusiness, and the interests of foreign corporations, especially from the United States.

About the pension system, contradictorily, Guedes himself said the only way out is to privatize it; that is, create private pension funds in which the banks will organize and take the savings from higher-income workers, like college professors, bank workers, oil workers, who want to complement their retirement payments beyond the cap established by the Brazilian Social Security Institute (INSS) and will pay into a private pension fund managed by a bank.

Meanwhile, Guedes said that one of the causes for the pension deficit is not the poor, the workers, it’s not my mom, who earns a minimum wage as rural retirement [less than R$1,000 or US$270 a month] – but it’s actually the privileges. Who earns R$28,000 a month [US$7,500] and will continue to earn that? It’s the army general. The judge, who earns R$35,000 [US$9,400] a month and will continue to earn that.

That will be untouchable, because the social base of the Bolsonaro administration is the military, the police, and the judicial system, represented by [the new Justice minister Sergio] Moro. So Mr. Guedes, I thank you for enlightening us about where the problem is – now I doubt you have the courage to tackle privileges in the next six months.

What is your opinion on judge Sergio Moro taking office as Justice minister after his work in recent years?

I think it becomes very clear, they are not hiding anything. The fact that Moro said, when he took office, that he will implement a permanent, “nation-wide Car Wash” [operation]… First, it’s presumptuous, because he is not part of the judicial branch. He is a minister who manages the Federal Police, so all he can do is conduct investigations, but it is up to the court system to accept charges.

The Left lacked – and I say this for the PT [Workers’ Party] and the Left and people’s movements in general – the courage to explain the nature of corruption to people. Corruption is a classic method that has been around since capitalism has been around. Corruption is how some business owners have been taking public money from the State. So there is a collusion between business owners, capitalists, and government bureaucracy to rob public money. The very nature of capitalism is corruption. So we have to explain to people that corruption is endemic – where there is capitalism and the bourgeois State, there will be corruption.

The MST was expressly mentioned by the president as a target of the new administration. How is the MST getting ready for this criminalization campaign that has been announced?

Evidently, during his campaign, Bolsonaro encouraged hatred and violence against everyone who takes on the social struggle – against the Left, not only the MST. But maybe because the MST is the most well-known movement, it was used as some kind of prime example to send a message about who the enemies of the new government are. But that does not make us fear. I believe all MST activists are aware we have to be careful and not expose ourselves to this hatred. But those who take on the struggle shall not fear, because we are fighting for justice, so that our people improve their living conditions.

We are not worried about potential persecutions against the MST, because in 34 years of movement we have paid the price for our social struggle. Maybe it’s the movement with the most records of assassinations vicimizing its grassroots activists, the most cases of torture and prison. But that does not frighten us or pushes us way from the social struggle.

I think these threats should be a warning sign for us, while also instigating us to do more grassroots and political education work. I say this not only for our MST grassroots, but for the Left in general. We have to resume a special grassroots and political education work, using the cultural tools of the poor youth from the outskirts of big cities as well.

The Left will only save itself if it is able to organize the poor working class that is on the poor outskirts of cities, that’s what is missing for us. Once we have an organized social base, that will be the best antidote to the threats, this hateful discourse, and any kind of criminalization.

What is the perspective for land reform in this new administration?

None. Now see: speaking of the correlation of political forces, we have not had any progress in land reform or peasant-focused policies over the past four years. We had two years of crisis in the Dilma [Rousseff] administration, and then the coup. This lack of perspective has been around for a long time.

Actually, what used to be just a shutdown of the land reform policy and policies focused on family farming will now be made official as “not doing it.” So all these executive orders signed in the first few days [since Bolsonaro took office] regarding land policies will directly impact the land reform and the peasantry in general, so we will face harsh years ahead of us, because capital forces will launch an offensive against peasants. There will be an offensive against indigenous peoples and quilombolas [residents of quilombos, settlements set up in Brazil’s rural areas, mostly by escaped enslaved people of African descent]. They are saying they will make reservations available for farming and mining. New [protected] areas will definitely not be demarcated.

What will progressive left-wing forces do regarding ex-president [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva]’s freedom?

In our sector, we have a major association, which is the People’s Brazil Front. It will hold an assembly in late January or early February to better design its tactics. What we do have right now is to encourage the broad sector of people’s movements and organizations to join the front and organize people’s committees in all cities to hold people’s assemblies and discuss what to do in the actual fight for better living conditions. And in this struggle, the people’s committees must also embrace this mission to reorganize ourselves in a major national campaign for president Lula’s freedom.

We need to strengthen the struggle from March to April 10th, because on this day there will be a Supreme Court trial that could have comrade Lula released. To have that, first, we need to engage a major mass movement so that society shows how outraged it is over the persecution against comrade Lula.

Meanwhile, comrade Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Latin America, nominated Lula for the 2019 Nobel Piece Prize. So we have to hold a major international and national campaign for people to express their engagement, which I think is the best way for the Brazilian people and the international community to acknowledge the merits of Lula and his policies, which contributed to lift millions out of poverty and end hunger in Brazil.

As for the Brazilian and international Left, I think the campaign for Lula’s freedom is a matter of honor, not only because we owe him this gratitude, but also as the humane thing to do, and especially because it is [an] unfair [prison].

How do you think this administration’s foreign policy will be like?

I saw the backlash against the inauguration of the foreign minister. It’s embarrassing, it felt like he was taking office at the TFP [Tradition, Family, and Property] headquarters, such was the backwardness and the ignorance of what he said.

But again, I think the contradiction is that exposing their backward, medieval ideas actually helps to isolate them. The fact that he said ‘now we are having a foreign policy for Brazil, no more globalization...’ Can you imagine that? Capitalists must be laughing! Capitalism has never been so globalized. A foreign minister is supposed to establish relationships with the world, not Brazil – that’s the president’s job.

I think capitalists once again tied Brazil’s economic and foreign policy to the interests of US capital. I think Trump himself doesn’t give a damn about Brazil. What he wants is to improve profit margins for the US industry.

They will make a very serious mistake with this relationship with the US, because 70 percent of our foreign trade is with China, Arab countries, and Russia. If the Russians decide not to buy our pork anymore, Brazilian packing companies will go bankrupt. If the Arabs decide not to buy our chicken, it will impact the livelihoods of 300,000 small farmers. If China decides not to buy soybean for one month, all agribusiness will be put out of order.

So there is a contradiction there. On the one hand, for ideological reasons, they align with the United States, but on the other, for the economic interests of a bourgeoisie established here, it makes no sense to have a foreign policy that completely relies on the US.

What is your take on the avalanche of fake news during Bolsonaro’s campaign to spread a number of absurdities? What led to Jair Bolsonaro’s election?

There is an ideological struggle that right-wing parties were putting up with computers to influence people through WhatsApp and Facebook. That happened during the Brexit campaign in England, the Trump campaign in the United States, in Hungary, and now, more recently, in Brazil, then in Andalusia, which elected a far-right regional government.

The most serious thing is that there is a new domination strategy by the CIA and the US government, which don’t want to use military invasions anymore, because they cost too much. Behind this, there is the United States devising a new strategy to overpower peoples with lies spread through the Internet. The outcome of this new US strategy, winning elections and imposing right-wing governments, is to bury democracy.

It is up to us, the Left and progressive political forces, to create a new kind of democracy that goes beyond the ballots, a democracy based on people’s participation, where people effectively take part in the social life and run the State.

*With collaboration by Nadine Nascimento.

Edited by: Katarine Flor