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This month, João Pedro Stédile, one of the MST’s founders and its best known leader, was offered some rare airtime in an interview on TV Brasil, the country’s public broadcaster. In an impressive, wide-ranging discussion, Stédile emphasised the continued relevance of agrarian reform in solving the country’s social problems, defended the movement’s recent acts (some of which have been highly controversial), and addressed the widespread corruption and social discontent that currently threaten Rousseff’s government.
In an opening reflection on the MST’s last 30 years, Stédile remarked on the improved relations with the Catholic Church since “down-to-earth” Pope Francis took charge of the Vatican. Stédile praised Pope Francis in surprisingly warm terms, labelling him a “legitimate intellectual” who had “surprised everyone” with his “simple and humble” attitudes and his acute social awareness. The MST leader, who has led the recent, ground-breaking discussions between international social movements and the Vatican, even gushed: “The more contact I have with him, the more I fall in love with that revolutionary.”
Not surprisingly, the MST leader was questioned during the 90-minute slot about recent and controversial acts, particularly their occupation of a São Paulo laboratory, where GM eucalyptus was being illegally cultivated. Stédile defended the movement’s action, saying that the government had refused to meet with MST scientists, who had wanted to argue against the proposed legalisation of the crop in a peaceful and rational way.
He warned that, if the National Biosafety Commission approved the GM tree at its next meeting in April, as is likely, it would be a “disgrace to Brazilian agriculture, society and the country’s widespread apiculture sector” and would risk wiping out all the country’s other eucalyptus species. Moreover, he added, the introduction of modified eucalyptus, which is backed by the Brazilian cellulose producer Suzano, “would not benefit small farmers or the population in general”, but only the seeds’ manufacturers, who will “tie farmers in to buying their poison”.
The landless leader also explained the movement’s decision to respond to the call for nation-wide protests on 15 March to demand the impeachment of President Rousseff by staging two days earlier a demonstration “in defence of Petrobrás and democracy”. Stédile dismissed remarks that the movement had become “the PT’s army”, arguing that the MST simply “does not accept the threats of coups and impeachment” against President Rousseff from “the middle-class bourgeois who lost to the people at the polls” last autumn. Nevertheless, the MST’s protests have since been misinterpreted as a defence of corruption and Stédile himself has become the target of social media death threats, which have branded him a wanted “enemy of the state”, to be handed over dead or alive.
In reality, it was clear from the interview that the MST’s relationship with the PT remains strained. On the one hand, he expressed his continuing support for ex-president (and PT-poster boy) Lula, as well as his delight at the recent appointment of Patrus Ananias, a known advocate of land reform, as agricultural development minister. On the other hand, he was fiercely critical of “Tia Dilma” (Aunty Dilma) and her government, which he claimed “lacks the social sensitivity” of her predecessor and has continuously disappointed Brazilian social movements since her re-election last October.
Stédile particularly attacked Rousseff’s “shameful” land reform efforts, arguing that she “doesn’t understand agriculture or what our settlements are about”. Unsurprisingly, his interview was also scattered with jibes at the loathed minister of agriculture, “Dona Abreu” (Kátia Abreu).
Stédile argued that, in order to address the endemic issue of corruption that was currently causing so much discontent in the country, what the country needed was not the President’s impeachment, which would be illegal and unconstitutional, but profound political reform. The MST leader blamed campaign financing by big business for undermining candidates’ party loyalty and “kidnapping” democracy. He supported civil society’s recent calls for a Constituent Assembly that would, among other revisions, “criminalise” electoral financing.
Stédile accused Gilmar Mendes, the “leader of the right” in Brazil’s Supreme Court, of intentionally stalling the petition for a Constituent Assembly by “sitting on” it, even though it had already gained support from the majority of magistrates early last year. Although Stédile did not appear confident of achieving the desired reforms, he stressed that setting up a Constituent Assembly was Brazil’s “only way out” of its current corruption crisis.
* Catherine Morgans is a political researcher specialising on Latin America and Lusophone Africa. Catherine’s passion is Brazil and she recently completed a research masters in Brazilian studies at the University of Leeds. Catherine’s interests include land issues, social movements and marginalised peoples and cultures in Brazil.