Plínio de Arruda Sampaio, widely known as Plínio, died in São Paulo, aged 83, from bone cancer. As he said in his autobiography, he was a committed socialist for over 60 years. Even in hospital, shortly before he died, he was reportedly urging nurses and visitors to vote for Luciana Genro, the candidate for the left-wing PSOL party, in the presidential elections in October.
Unusually for left-wing politicians in Brazil, Plínio had a deep understanding of agrarian issues. Back in the early 1960s, he was campaigning for the rights of rural workers and peasant farmers and, as a young federal deputy, presented a radical bill for agrarian reform in Congress during the government of President João Goulart, an initiative that deeply alarmed the big landowners and the generals. As a result, when the coup came in 1964, he was one of 41 deputies cassados (expelled) by the military’s First Institutional Act.
He spent 12 years in exile, working for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). When he returned to Brazil in 1976, he joined labour leaders such as Lula, and radical Catholic Church activists in setting up the PT (Workers’ Party). He was elected federal deputy for the PT in 1985 and was an active participant in the Constituent Assembly, which drew up Brazil’s new and progressive constitution, passed in 1988.
Plinio was delighted when Lula was finally elected president in 2002. When I first met him in 2003, he was extremely busy drawing up a radical plan for agrarian reform, having finally, after much pestering, got the go-ahead from Lula. His ideas were radical: “In quantitative terms, we have to daw up a plan that will expropriate enough land from the latifúndios (big estates) to provoke a real rupture with the old agrarian structure. We need to change the economic, social and political structures, change the Gini index.” His plan was to settle a million families on the land in four years (2004-2007), expropriating land from unproductive latifúndios.
But, to Plínio’s consternation, the plan was never implemented. Lula was told by the powerful agri-business lobby how important agricultural exports were for the national economy, and he gave in to the pressure. Some land was distributed to landless families but in small quantities and nearly always far away from the rich farming regions.
When I interviewed him again, several years later, Plinio said that Lula’s big mistake had been not to trust the people. “He should have mobilised his supporters, putting millions in the streets to create a democratic counter-force to the power of the big lobbies. He always refused to do this.’
Plínio eventually left the PT, saying, not entirely in jest: “It wasn’t I who left the PT. It was the PT that left me.” He helped found the PSOL, the breakaway party from the PT, and in recent years campaigned tirelessly for it.
He was worshipped by the MST (Landless Movement) and will be sorely missed.