Interview with Brazil’s Landless Movement leader João Pedro Stedile

By Nilton Viana

Translation: John Catalinotto

João Pedro Stedile

João Pedro Stedile

1. What is your analysis of the demonstrations that have been shaking Brazil in recent weeks? What is the economic basis for them?

There are many evaluations of why these events are occurring. I’ll summarize the analysis of professor Erminia Maricato, who is our greatest expert on urban issues and has served in the Ministry of Cities under Olivia Dutra’s direction. She defends the thesis that there is an urban crisis in Brazilian cities caused by this stage of financial capitalism. There was a huge real estate speculation that raised prices and land rents by 150 percent in the last three years.

Without any government control, capital has financed auto sales, in order to send money overseas and has turned our transit system to chaos. In the last 10 years, there has been no investment in public transport. The housing program, “My House, My Life,” pushed the poor to the cities’ suburbs where there is no infrastructure. All this led to a structural crisis in which people are living in hell in the big cities, losing three to four hours a day commuting in traffic when they could be with their families, studying or enjoying cultural activities.

Added to this is the poor quality of public services, especially health and even education — from elementary school to high school, which students leave without knowing how to write an essay. The system of higher education has turned into a supermarket, selling 70 percent of college students’ diplomas on the installment plan.

2. From the political point of view, why did this happen?

The 15 years of neoliberalism plus the last 10 years of a mixed-class government transformed the way of doing politics so that it is hostage to capitalist interests. The parties remained stuck in their old ways.  They became mere acronyms that coalesced — mostly on an opportunistic basis — to enable them to hold public office or fight for public resources that serve their narrow interests.

All youth born after the “Direct Elections Now” movement [for president, at the end of the military dictatorship — translator’s note] had no opportunity to participate in politics. In order to compete for any position now — for example, city alderman — the candidate must have more than a million reais ($450,000).  Being elected deputy to parliament costs around 10 million reais.

The capitalists pay and then the politicians obey. The young are fed up with this way of doing bourgeois politics, of buying posts.

But the worst was that all of the parties of the institutional left have adapted themselves to these methods. They grew old and bureaucratized. This led to disgust among the youth at how the parties operate. They are right. The youth are not apolitical.  On the contrary, they are political enough to take politics into the streets, even if they are unaware of the significance. They are saying that they are fed up with watching these political practices on television: Politicians kidnapping people’s votes, based on lies and manipulation.

The left parties need to relearn that it is their role to organize the social struggle and politicize the working class. If they don’t do this, they’ll be buried in the mass grave of history.

3. Why have the demonstrations erupted now?

This is probably due more to several factors of mass psychology than it is to some planned political decision. It is summed up by the whole mood that I commented on plus the allegations of overpricing on the stadiums’ construction, which is a provocation to the people.

Let’s consider a few cases.

The Globo network received from Rio [de Janeiro’s] state and city governments 20 million reais from the public treasury to organize a little two-hour show, a draw to the Confederations Cup games. The stadium in Brasilia cost 1.4 billion reais. And there are no buses in the city!

The overt dictatorship and dirty tricks are what the FIFA/CBF [soccer business organizations] imposed; the state and federal governments have submitted to them. The reopening of the Maracanã [the Rio de Janeiro stadium] was a slap in the face to the Brazilian people. The pictures were clear: In the largest temple of world soccer there were no Black or Mestizo people! From that point on, the increase in bus fares was the spark that ignited the widespread outrage and indignation.

The [Gov. Geraldo] Alkmin government [of São Paulo] provided the gasoline to feed that spark. Protected by the media that he finances, and accustomed to beat on the people with impunity — as he did during evictions in the Pinheirinho neighborhood, and in other rural and urban areas — Alkmin used the police to carry out barbaric acts. Then everybody reacted.

Thankfully, the youth woke up. And it was to the “Free Pass Movement’s” credit that it knew how to capitalize on this popular discontent and organize protests at the right time.

4. Why has the working class not yet taken to the streets?

It’s true that the working class has not yet been in the streets. The children of the middle class, lower-middle class, and some of the young that André Singer called the subproletariat have been on the streets.  They are studying and working in the service sector, which improved the conditions of consumption, but these young people want to be heard. These subproletariat youth appeared more in other capital cities and in the suburbs.

The transit fare reduction made a big difference to all the people.  This was the big success of the “Free Pass Movement,” which knew how to call for a mobilization on behalf of the interests of the people. The people supported the protests; this was shown by the youth’s popularity in opinion polls, especially when they were repressed.

The working class takes its time to move.  But when it moves, it directly affects capitalist interests. This has not yet begun to happen. I think that the organizations that have influence in the working class have not understood the current situation and are a bit timid about taking action.  But I think the class, as a class, is ready to struggle.

We can see that the number of strikes for better wages has recovered to the level of the 1980s. I think it’s just a matter of time — if the organizations raise the banners and slogans that can arouse the class to act.  In recent days, in some smaller towns and the outskirts of large cities, banners have already appeared with demands that are on target. This is very important.

5. You, the MST and the peasants, also haven’t moved yet?

It is true. In the capitals where we have family farming settlements nearby, we are already participating. Even I can bear witness that we were very well received with our red flag and our demands for agrarian reform and healthy and cheap food for all people. I think in the next few weeks we may have more participation. We will also hold demonstrations of peasants on the highways and in the municipalities. All of our activists are eager to join the fray and mobilize. I hope they will have the chance soon.

6. In your opinion, what is the origin of the violence that has taken place in some demonstrations?

First, we will put this in context. The bourgeoisie has used its television to promote scare tactics to frighten people, putting out only propaganda that says hooligans and rioters are there.These are a minority and they are insignificant compared to the thousands of people that were mobilized.

The right wing wants to instill in the population’s imagination that the whole thing is just a mess and that in the end — if what results is chaos — you should blame the government and demand the intervention of the armed forces.

I hope the government will not make the mistake of calling out the National Guard and the military to suppress the demonstrations. That would turn the right wing’s dream into a reality.

What is causing the violence is the intervention of the military police. Since the military dictatorship, the military police have always been prepared to treat the people as the enemy. In the states ruled by the toucans [the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy] (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais), the military police still have the promise of impunity.

There are organized groups with a rightist orientation to carry out provocations and looting. In São Paulo, fascist groups took action, as well as hired thugs.  In Rio de Janeiro, organized militias acted to protect their conservative politicians. Of course, there is also a substratum of the “lumpen-proletariat” that comes out to any popular mobilization, whether in stadiums, carnivals or church festivals, trying to take advantage.

7. Is there is a class struggle in the streets or is it just youth expressing their outrage?

It is clear that there is a class struggle in the streets, although this fight is still concentrated in the ideological arena. What is more serious is that the mobilized youth themselves, because of their class backgrounds, are unaware that they are participating in a battle over ideology.

The proof of this is that young people are participating in politics in the best way possible — in the streets. They are carrying placards saying they “are against parties and politics.” In every city and in every demonstration, there is an ongoing struggle in the ideological arena: Young people are being fought over by the capitalists and the working class over ideas, right and left.

On the other hand, there are evident signs of a right wing that is very well coordinated, and of its intelligence agencies, which use the Internet and hide behind masks, seeking to create waves of rumors and opinions online. A strange message will suddenly appear online, and then it is repeated thousands of times. Then, the results of this repetition are disseminated as if they were the expression of the majority.

The CIA and the U.S. State Department used these mechanisms for manipulation during the Arab Spring in an attempt to destabilize Venezuela, and in the war against Syria. Of course, they are operating here to achieve their goals.

8. What are the goals of the right wing and their proposals?

The ruling class, the capitalists, those who represent U.S. imperialist interests and their ideological spokespeople, who appear on television every day, have one big goal:  Wear down the Dilma [Rousseff] government. Weaken the organizations of the working class, defeat any proposed structural changes in Brazilian society and win the 2014 elections to restore full rightist hegemony in command of the Brazilian state, which is now under dispute.

To achieve these goals, they are still groping about and alternating their tactics. Sometimes they provoke violence to blur the goals of the youth. Sometimes they put their messages on young people’s posters. For example, the demonstration in São Paulo on Saturday (June 22), albeit small, was totally manipulated by right-wing sectors that guided the struggle only against PEC 37, with slogans and posters oddly giving the same message. Most young people do not even know what is involved. [PEC 37 involves how much power prosecutors have to investigate corruption. The right wing wants to focus corruption charges on the PT government, the left on the banks and capitalists. — translator]

It is a secondary issue for the people, but the right wing is trying to raise the flags of morality, as did the UDN [National Democratic Union, Brazilian political party 1945-1964] in times past. What they are already doing in Congress, they will take to the streets very soon.

What I have seen on right-wing-controlled social networks and on their banners, besides the PEC 37, are: Get [President of the Senate] Renan [Calheiros] out; the CPI and transparency of spending of COPA; declare corruption a heinous crime and end special privileges for politicians. Already, fascist groups are testing “Out with Dilma” banners and are circulating petitions calling for her impeachment. Fortunately, these banners have nothing do with the living conditions of the masses, yet the media can manipulate them. Objectively, they may be shooting themselves in the foot.

After all, it is the Brazilian bourgeoisie, its entrepreneurs and politicians who are the most corrupt and the biggest corrupters. Who appropriated the overspent funds for the Cup? The Globo and the big contractors!

9. What challenges are posed for the working class and popular organizations and left parties?

There are many challenges.

First, we must be aware of the nature of these demonstrations.  We shall all go into the streets and fight for the hearts and minds of the youth, to politicize those who have no experience in the class struggle.

Second, the working class must be in motion. It must go into the streets and demonstrate in the factories, fields and the construction sites, as Geraldo Vandré said. They must raise their demands to resolve concrete class problems from the economic and political point of view.

Third, we need to explain to the people who their main enemies are: the banks and transnational corporations that have taken over our economy, the agribusiness plantation owners and the speculators.

We must take the initiative to guide the debate in society and demand approval for the project to reduce the workweek to 40 hours. We must demand priority for public investments in health, education and land reform.  For that, the government needs to cut interest rates and shift resources of the primary surplus — those 200 billion reais that annually go to just 20,000 wealthy financiers, creditors of an internal debt that we never made — and move it to productive and social investments.

That’s what the class struggle puts before the Dilma [Rousseff] government: Will public resources go to the finance capitalists or to solve the problems of the people?

Fourth, we have to urgently pass deep-seated political reform that at a minimum establishes exclusive public financing for political campaigns — so that it is operative in the next election.  Also, we must have the right to recall elected politicians and to initiate popular plebiscites.

Fifth, we need tax reform to recharge the Value Added Tax on exported raw materials and penalize the wealth of the rich, while easing taxes on the poor, who are the ones who pay the most.

Sixth, we need the government to suspend the auctions of oil concessions and the privatization of all minerals and other public property. Nothing is gained by applying all oil royalties in education.  The royalties represent only 8 percent of the oil revenues; 92 percent will go to transnational corporations that continue to own the oil sold at the auctions.

Seventh, there must be urban structural reform.  The quality of public transport must be re-prioritized and it should be free. It has been demonstrated that it is not expensive and not hard to set up free transport for the masses in the capital cities. Real estate speculation must be controlled.

Eighth, we need to take up and approve the project of the National Conference of Communication, which is broadly representative of the democratization of the media. The Globo network’s monopoly must end, and the people and their grassroots organizations must have broad access to communication so they can create their own publicly funded media.

I have heard of several youth movements that are coordinating the marches.  Maybe this is the only banner that unifies all of us: “Down with the Globo monopoly!”

But these banners and demands will only resonate in society and pressure the government and the politicians if the working class is in motion.

1O. What should the government do now?

I hope the government has the sensitivity and intelligence to leverage this support, this cry that comes from the streets.  It is only a summary of diffuse awareness in society that it is time for a change, a change that favors the people. To do this, the government needs to confront the ruling class in all aspects.  It has to confront the finance capitalists and shift interest payments to investments in areas that resolve the people’s problems.  it must promote political and tax reforms immediately. It must push forward approval of the Project of Media Democratization.

It must create mechanisms for heavy investment in public transport, which move toward no fares. It must accelerate land reform and plan food production for the domestic market.

It must guarantee the application of 10 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for public funding for public education at all levels, from child-care centers in large cities, to quality basic education to universal access to public universities for young people.

Without this, there will be disappointment and the government will deliver the initiative to the right wing to raise banners aimed at exhausting the government until the 2014 elections. It is time for the government to ally with the people or pay the bill in the future.

11. What prospects might these demonstrations lead to in the coming months?

Everything is still an unknown because the youth and the masses are in dispute. Therefore, the popular forces and leftist parties need to call upon all their energy and go out into the streets. Demonstrate.  Put out your banners on the struggles for reforms that concern the people.

The right wing will do the same thing and raise their conservative, backward banners about criminalization and which stigmatize ideas for social change.

We are in a full battle of ideas. Nobody knows yet what the result will be. In every city and at every demonstration, we need to fight for hearts and minds. Whoever stays out of this struggle will be left out of history.