PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH

October 1998

The New Revolutionary Peasantry

The growth of peasant-led opposition to neoliberalism

James Petras

I was invited to give one of the inaugural speeches at the Second Latin American Congress of Rural Organizations (Congreso Latinoamericano de Organizaciones del Campo, CLOC) that took place in Brazil November 3-7, 1997. There were approximately 350 delegates from practically every country in Latin America (only Uruguay and El Salvador were absent). The Congress marked a turning point in Latin American revolutionary politics as it signaled the revival and dynamic growth of popularly organized, independent struggles to overthrow the neo-liberal regimes and to create a humane and egalitarian alternative.

The growth of peasant-led mass opposition to neo-liberalism is uneven. In some countries like Brazil, where the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) represents hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, the rural movement provides leadership to the national struggle. In other countries like Chile, the farmworkers' movement has not yet recovered from the savage repression of the Pinochet years and is a marginal force even at local levels. One of the key factors explaining the rising influence of peasant movements is their autonomy and independence from electoral parties and guerrilla "commanders" where they were merely "transmission belts" of policy.

The second factor is their embrace of a national socio-political agenda. In discussions with many peasant leaders at the CLOC conference (as well as in prior meetings over the past 5 years) the fundamental issue was "self-determination," the idea that only the farmworkers through their own organizations can liberate themselves. The FENOC in Ecuador, the MST in Brazil and the Paraguayan Peasant Federation, all of which have played a major role in shaping the national debate on agrarian reform, emerged from peasant organizing from below, developed their own structures and leaders, and were not beholden to any party.

In contrast, the Chilean peasant organizations are largely adjuncts of electoral party elites (Socialist and Christian Democrats) who are part of a government coalition implementing a neo- liberal agenda. These organizations have little capacity to organize and are beholden to the state for their meager subsidies.

The influence and power of peasant movements is evident:

In Ecuador the peasant and Indian movements spearheaded the movement that forced the resignation of President Bucaram, on corruption charges and attempts to impose an IMF free market agenda on the people.

In Brazil, the MST has settled over 150,000 families representing almost a million people on uncultivated lands through direct action—land occupation movements. Through actions in 21 states the MST has pushed land-reform to the center of political debate. One indicator of its success is found in recent polls in Sao Paulo (Brazil's largest city) which indicate that over 75 percent of the population support land distribution favoring landless farm workers.

In Bolivia, the peasants, particularly the coca growing ex-tin miners, have led the struggle in defense of national sovereignty and recently swept the elections with their own candidates in the Cochabamba area.

In Colombia, the peasant-based guerrilla army, the Popular Army of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has extended its influence to close to half the rural municipalities in the country. While not strictly speaking a peasant movement since almost one-third of its recruits come from the town and cities, many of its programmatic demands are rural-centered: land reform, human rights in the countryside, unionization of farm workers, etc. With close to 15,000 mostly peasant combatants it is probably the most potent guerrilla army in the Third World today and gaining strength. One indication is the fact that the U.S. Defense Department has dropped the fiction that its multi-million dollar military aid program is directed toward fighting narco­traffickers. It publicly endorsed the shipment of arms to fight peasant insurgency.

In Paraguay, only a massive mobilization of peasants and students blocked a threatened military coup. Plummeting cotton prices have put hundreds of thousands of peasants on the verge of bankruptcy. Free market trade policies and state promoted agro-business exporters are undermining local food producers, inciting a cycle of peasant land occupations and violent military evictions.

In Mexico, the Zapatista movement (EZLN) has re-opened the question of Indian rights, land reform, and more fundamentally the whole NAFTA/free market policies promoted by Clinton and Zedillo. Without the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the signing and implementation of NAFTA would have passed as an elite ceremonial event. Since implementation of NAFTA began, over one million peasants have been ruined and tens of millions of salaried employees have had their incomes cut by half. The demands and critique of the EZLN resonate throughout the country.

The New Peasantry

The contemporary peasant movements are not comparable to past movements, nor do they fit the stereotype of local, traditional, illiterate peasants struggling for "land to the tiller." Most of the peasant and Indian delegates at the CLOC Congress were educated (both self-taught and with at least six years of formal schooling) and aware of national and international issues. The new peasant movements have a national agenda: they are not solely concerned with rural issues. More specifically they are aware that land distribution policies can only succeed with credit, technical assistance, and protected markets. They recognize that political alliances with urban classes and organizations is necessary in order to transform the regime. They are not simply "economic organizations." They are socio-political movements, struggling against the free market policies of privatization, de-regulation, and export promotion. The rural movements have formed political alliances with trade unions and have contributed to the organization of urban slum dwellers. The general strikes that rocked Ecuador in February 1997, Brazil in June 1996, Bolivia in December 1996 for example, were based on peasant-Indian-trade union alliances.

At the CLOC conference most of the delegates were between 20 and 30 years old. They were fresh from national and regional struggles. The historic first Latin American Assembly of Rural Women was held before the CLOC conference and attended by close to 100 delegates. Over 40 percent of the delegates to the CLOC meeting were peasant women, mostly in their 20s to early 30s. This was an extraordinary change: at the previous CLOC meeting 3 years earlier less than 10 percent of the delegates were women.

The younger delegates fortunately had not passed through the sectarian leftist wars of the 1960s or 1970s. Their support for the Cuban Revolution was based on its resistance to U.S. intervention and its progressive agrarian reform. Few, if any, took their "doctrinal cues" from Fidel Castro. They "incorporated" Che Guevara or Fidel Castro to particular national and social struggle. Hence the coca farmer delegate spoke of Che's anti-imperialism in the struggle against U.S.-DEA eradication policies. Fidel Castro was cited as a forerunner of the Brazilian peasants struggle to occupy land and resist eviction. Thus there is neither repudiation or iconization of past revolutionaries.

The upsurge of the new peasant movements faces important challenges that were raised in both the formal sessions and informal discussions. For example, one of the slogans of the conference was "agrarian reform, anti-imperialism, and socialism," yet the representatives of the Guatemalan organization (CONIC) told me that it was impossible to raise any of those issues in Guatemala. "The mass terror and the continual operation of the paramilitary death squads still weigh heavily on the peasants." The peace accords signed by the guerrilla commanders left the genocidal generals immune to any prosecution. The emerging electoral political system is still linked to the state institution of violence (army, judiciary, and secret police) which have been only given a facelift, renamed, their personnel reshuffled.

"The highest priority is to create an umbrella organization for the dozen or so peasant organization that have emerged in recent years. We have to temper our activity as to not endanger the precarious and very limited political space that we occupy," one peasant leader commented. U.S. AID has utilized its rural funding to create rival organizations to the militant peasant movements and to encourage groups to think in terms of "projects" not agrarian reform.

Culture and Revolution

Cultural issues, particularly Indian demands for territorial autonomy, recognition of their religions, linguistics, and community-based economies were central issues raised, especially by Ecuadorean, Bolivian, and Guatemalan delegations. One Bolivian peasant leader spoke of the sacred and religious nature of coca production, which she engaged in to support her family. The Guatemalan voiced a common concern of all the Indian-peasant delegations for greater right of self-government.

What became clear, however, in the course of the discussions was a profound difference between these militants and the public figures that the Western mass media present as "Indian spokes people." For example, the Bolivians spoke disparagingly of the so-called "Quechua-speaking vice-president" who talks to the Indians and works for the rich foreigners. The Guatemalans were very critical of Rigoberta Menchu for her embrace of symbolic "Mayan" cultural changes divorced from the larger political-economic and human rights issues. And the Ecuadorean FONIC-I leaders spoke critically of two Indian leaders of the umbrella CONAI movement who were co-opted by the corrupt free market Bucaram regime. The leaders of the Indian movements at the CLOC congress were not falling victim to the "cultural identity" politics designed to divide and co-opt local leaders in order to undercut the movement's demands for land rights.

The new peasant movements have been deeply influenced by the social doctrines of the Church. At one of the plenary sessions, Fray Beto, the Brazilian Catholic theologian, asked the delegates how many had been influenced by religious teachings: over 90 percent raised their hands. Popular religiosity, the fusion of biblical lessons, and religious values has had a direct effect in stimulating the new generation of peasant leaders, along with Marxism, traditional communitarian values, and modern feminist and nationalist ideas. The organizational discipline, personal integrity, and moral commitment that infuses much of the movement comes from their earlier religious background, even as many of the militants have taken their distance from the conservative Church hierarchy and the Vatican.

The success of the Latin American Assembly of Peasant Women was manifested by the overwhelmingly favorable response to their proposals for equal presence in all levels of the peasant organization (from international to local) and in all instances of the agrarian reform process (from land titles to co-op leadership). The energies and enthusiasm unleashed gave added vitality to the proposals for coordinated joint continental action around peasant demands.

The new militancy of peasant women was manifested in other instances. A delegate of the Cochabamba peasant movement described the struggle of the coca farmers against the U.S.- directed eradication campaign. "This year they have already assassinated several of our members and one of our leaders. We have resisted and will continue to resist. I am supporting my elderly mother and my only son on my four acres. We negotiated with the government a pact in exchange for the eradication of 7,000 acres of coca production the government promised to finance alternative economic activity, including a factory to employ the displaced farmers. We have reduced coca production by 3,000 acres but they have not even started to build the factory. They have tricked us again. Now they are threatening to send the military to massacre us and eradicate all our sacred lands and leave us in misery. I want to learn how to use a gun. Because I want to be able to be part of the armed resistance when the Army invades."

Militarization & State Repression

The neo-liberal regimes and their backers in Washington have responded to the growing peasant movements by demilitarizing the countryside: there are 40,000 soldiers in Chiapas, Mexico in addition to at least 5 new paramilitary groups since 1995. In Colombia, the military has armed scores of paramilitary forces, terrorizing and displacing several hundred thousand peasants perceived as real or potential sympathizers of the FARC. In Peru, the U.S.-backed military occupies three quarters of the countryside and President Fujimori holds his press conferences and top strategy meetings in the barracks. In Bolivia the military with U.S. DEA advisors has savaged the coca growing peasants and is saturating the region for a major assault on over 40,000 families whose only livelihood is coca leaf cultivation.

Washington's responsibility for the militarization of the Latin American countryside and the ensuing violence is transparent. Clinton's push for free markets is undermining local peasant producers who are ruined by cheap U.S. corn and grain imports. The White House's financing of agro- business export strategies is converting the countryside into one big plantation displacing peasant and Indian communal farmers. Those not displaced by the market, those who decide to stay and organize or to grow alternative crops that are marketable, are driven out by the U.S. trained and armed military and paramilitary forces. It is abundantly clear throughout Latin America that peasant activists perceive the Clinton administration as complicit with some of the most damaging economic policies they have experienced. With Washington's backing of the increased militarization of the continent, Clinton may surpass Reagan's bloody record of 275,000 dead Central Americans in the 1980s.

But the new peasant movements have grown, even against the repression of the new civilian regimes. In Santa Carmen there had been a land occupation where peasants with their machetes were clearing the land and feeding each other through a common kitchen. In August 1996, the Army invaded and killed three peasants, destroyed their crops and houses, and drove scores of families off the land. Several months later the peasants re­occupied the land and organized a national conference attended by over 1,000 people including students, professionals, progressive businesspeople, and peasants from all over the country. They formed a national coordinating committee for agrarian reform.

Likewise, in Brazil in Para, 18 landless peasants peacefully blocking highways were butchered by the military police under orders from the governor. A photographer videotaped the event. A national outcry ensued. Massive demonstrations took place in Sao Paulo, Rio, and other cities. Public opinion polls demonstrated overwhelming support for the MST. They organized a march on the capital and were joined by over 100,000 people, including trade unionists and urban slum dwellers. President Cardoso, who denounced the MST as an "anachronistic movement" fighting outdated battles (like land reform), faced with the mass protests, invited one of the leaders to the Presidential Palace to discuss the best way to implement the reforms. The 15 member national leadership showed up to demonstrate that there is no single leader and refused Cardoso's offer to sign an agreement suspending land occupations in exchange for settling 49,000 families camped on contested terrain. As Joao Pedro Stedile, an MST leader, said later, "It is necessary to negotiate but never at the price of demobilizing the movement. Otherwise you have nothing to negotiate in the future."

But not all peasant movements are in a position to respond to death-squad repression. A peasant leader from Colombia at the Congress told of the systematic extermination of peasant activists and their families by paramilitary groups who suspect any proponents of land reform or advocates of human rights as disguised guerrilla sympathizers because the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) also support those demands.

In Peru, the Peasant Confederation of Peru (CCP) is in the process of regrouping forces, battered by assassinations by the Fujimori regime, Sendero Luminoso the fanatical Maoist sect, and the political divisions provoked by the Leftist electoral parties cannibalizing members. In some regions the CCP has organized "rondas campesinos," peasant self-defense groups to resist paramilitary forces and the "exemplary actions" of Sendero sectarians. Lopez and other peasants are critical of the trajectory of former movement leaders who gain elected office. "The closer to parliament the further from the people."

NGOs

NGOs create many problems for peasant struggles: the huge outside funding linked to pursuing policies compatible with the free market; the focus on local projects rather than structural changes (land reform); the emphasis on self-­exploitation and survival strategies (self-help) instead of comprehensive, publicly funded health, education, and housing programs.

Peasant leaders and activists have described how the NGOs competed with peasant leaders, divided communities, and co-opted activists with their funds. A Brazilian activist told of efforts by the women of the MST to formulate a common strategy at a Latin American Meeting of Peasant Women. "We proposed a united strategy for agrarian reform, an active role in the leadership in the land occupation struggles and confrontation with the repressive role of the state. The meeting failed to come to an agreement," she said, "because of the manipulative behavior of the NGO professional women, who wanted to control the agenda and limit it exclusively to international cooperation and to confine the struggle to exclusively feminist issues which meant no support for agrarian reform, anti-imperialism and anti-neo-liberalism."

She went on to describe these feminist NGO professionals as "authoritarian and with a colonialist mentality; they have nobody behind them except their wealthy outside backers." An Ecuadorean peasant leader commented, "I have no objection to overseas NGOs funding our land reform movement if that's what they are willing to do. What is offensive is their setting down their priorities and funding professionals from our country to come in and undermine our struggles."

Peasants have learned from the past that even well meaning progressive professionals have used their support for peasants to build a political or lucrative professional career as a foreign consultant or expert. That doesn't mean that peasants are turning their back on intellectuals or professionals. The main difference is that they want the intellectuals to be resource people for the movements, rather than the movements serving the intellectuals and professionals as sources for outside grants.

Rural-Urban Alliances

The most promising aspect of the new peasant movements is their understanding of the limits of strictly "peasant movements" confined to rural struggles. All of the major peasant movements are making a concerted effort to build an urban base of support and to coordinate rural and urban struggles. In Ecuador, FENOC is involved in the struggle to elect a constitutional assembly, reflecting the interests of the urban and rural poor. The Paraguayan Peasant Federation has formed an Agrarian Reform Forum including students, professionals, and businesspeople. They have expanded their political horizons to oppose free market capitalism and the narco-capitalist elite. In Bolivia the coca farmers have formed a new electoral party, the Alliance for the Sovereignty of the People. It swept to victory in all the coca growing countries, gathering over 60 percent of the vote and electing Evo Morales to Congress.

In Brazil the MST has begun a systematic effort to organize the giant favelas or slum settlements that surround Sao Paulo, Rio, and other major cities. They have found great receptivity among the favelados, mainly because of their successful rural struggles and the fact that most favelados are recent emigrants from the countryside. The MST is not only focussing on immediate demands for land titles and infrastructure (lights, water, paved roads, public transport, etc.), but also on political education through leadership training schools and the development of an anti-­capitalist perspective based on an understanding of the exploitative nature of financial and real estate capital. They hope to avoid the previous pattern where local leaders who led a courageous struggle, then got themselves elected to the City Council, and subsequently built electoral machines based on clientelistic politics.

The MST sees their urban organizing project as part of a national political struggle. To that end, they have formulated a program called "Project Brazil" which is based on a reversal of all the major free market counter-reforms: the re-nationalization of basic industries (petroleum, telecommunications, etc.), the socialization of the strategic heights of the economy—banking, foreign trade and an integral agrarian reform, which limits cheap exports and promotes linkages between cooperatives and industrial food processing plants.

Winning the cities is not an open road. There are obstacles: the urban middle class and even the trade unions still have a patronizing view of the peasantry. Today it is the rural workers who are challenging the traditional belief that the urban working class leaders are the designated vanguard of historical change. Today's peasant leaders are looking for an alliance with urban workers, as well as the urban poor in the giant slums, but only on terms of a common program in which agrarian issues share center stage. The old style internationalism tied to a socialist fatherland has been replaced by a new voluntary, decentralized, consultative internationalism in which diverse cultures flourish and common struggles are being forged not by charismatic leaders but by the steady organizing and everyday heroism of peasant women and men traveling all day and all night to the villages of Guatemala, the highlands of Ecuador, the wide expanses of Brazil, teaching, learning and creating a new revolutionary politics of social liberation and spiritual fulfillment.