Breaking the map with the machete’s edge: the internationalism of the landless

“Internationalism is not for us charity, nor is it propaganda. It is a principle, and all the practical actions of the MST are framed in it.” João Pedro Stedile talks about the multiple streams of struggle and solidarity that inspire and shape the largest social movement in Latin America

July 19, 2022 by Joao Pedro Stedile

Landless, but with a lot of history, the peasants of Brazil’s MST have been practicing internationalism as a principle since 1984. As in their own flag, the machete overflows the borders and traces the itinerary of new possible maps.

For the Landless Rural Workers Movement of Brazil (MST), the dialectic between nationalism and internationalism occurred in a peculiar way: we acknowledged receipt of the influences of internationalism, of the historical experiences of the working class and peasants of the world, just when we were just beginning to stammer out the construction of our organization. We already had experience in the struggle for land, but it took us two or three years to form ourselves as a movement, to build a program, to elaborate a doctrine, and above all to build the organizational principles that govern us to this day.

By studying these principles, by taking a look at the organizations that preceded us, whether in Brazil or internationally, we realized that internationalism should not be one activity among many, but a guiding principle. Just as we doctrinally incorporated collective leadership, planning, study and permanent training, we also incorporated the principle of internationalism.

Our generation, which began its struggles between the late 1970s and early 1980s, was marked by the great epics of internationalism such as the Vietnam War. Some even argue that it was the internationalism practiced first in the United States and then around the world that decided the fate of the conflict against US interests. Also, of course, the Sandinista Revolution, which had a tremendous impact in Brazil. Who made it known here was in fact the Catholic Church itself, in particular the sector linked to Liberation Theology, which was not only part of our struggles for land, but also participated at that time in the construction of the Workers’ Party and in the Basic Ecclesial Communities, the so-called CEBs. The events in Nicaragua had a great political-ideological influence and soon the Brazilian left organized brigades to go and participate in the coffee harvest.

Although somewhat more distant in time, a very vivid memory of the Spanish Civil War was preserved in Brazil, since a brigade of more than fifty combatants – some with military training, others without – had left from here, an epic organized by the then Brazilian Communist Party from the underground. Among them was Apolônio de Carvalho, the most internationalist of all our compatriots.

From 1979 to 1985 there were six years of land occupations, of the resumption of peasant struggles in Brazil, even in the difficult context of the military dictatorship. But we were not yet aware of the need for a national movement: when we wanted to build it, we dedicated ourselves to study, particularly the peasant experiences that preceded us, not only in our country, but also in Latin America and the Caribbean, where there was a much greater experience, such as Cuba, for example. We were deeply shocked when Fidel sent a plane to pick up numerous leaders of the peasant movements in northeastern Brazil so that they could learn firsthand about the Cuban experience. The fact was very funny because nobody had any idea where the island was: they were poor peasants, sugarcane workers, from the state of Pernambuco most of them, took a plane for the first time in their lives to go and get to know a revolutionary process.

There was also an internationalist germ in our Peasant Leagues, which were very active in solidarity with Cuba. Here the Communist Party, the main left-wing force at that time, had its eyes fixed on Moscow and looked at the Cuban Revolution with distrust, branding it as the work of adventurers, of guerrillas without a party or program.

In Brazil, peasant struggles arose after the Second World War, while in Latin America and the Caribbean they are four or five hundred years old; even older, because before European colonization there was already a peasantry here: their historical experience is much more vast than ours. Our will was to learn with them. From the Ligas Campesinas of northern Argentina, from the Rondas Campesinas of Peru, from the Bolivian experience with the peasant-indigenous marches: if we are marching today it is because we learned from the Bolivians, capable of walking dozens of kilometers a day. We also learned a lot from the Ecuadorian movements, from their great tradition, and not to mention Mexico: I studied there when I was young, and I was able to get involved in the land seizures of the Mexican peasantry and in their enormous mobilizations towards Mexico City.

A peasant internationalism

We drank from this broth of internationalism, in a process that led to the founding congress of the MST in 1985, held in Curitiba, capital of the State of Paraná. Symptomatically, although we did not even know where we were going to end up, we counted there the presence of delegates from peasant movements from 16 countries. This was already a mark of origin. This generated a lot of commotion in the press; we were just coming out of the dictatorship and some crazy peasants were meeting with their peers from all over the continent. For example, there was Hugo Blanco, the historic leader of the Peruvian peasants.

From then on, we tried to participate in all the ongoing international articulations, at Latin American and international level. Towards the end of the 80s, for example, we were invited as observers to a congress in Prague of the UISTAAC, a peasant and rural articulation linked to the World Federation of Trade Unions. The congress was otherwise very boring, following that orthodox Soviet pattern. They were four whole days of “speech championship” where no conclusion or plan was reached.

But in the evenings, the Latin American delegations rebelled. We concluded that that method was totally unproductive and that it was not internationalism. We were grateful for the ticket, the hotel, the food, the space that allowed us to get to know each other, and we began to conspire. We decided that we had to set up our own articulation, of the peasants, with other methods, with young leaders, with a real internationalism, not one of acronyms and bureaucracies. There were people from the ATC of Nicaragua, from the FENOC of Ecuador, people from Mexico, the MST, the CUT Rural of Brazil, etc.

When we returned, we decided to organize our own event, which was not so easy in times when there was no internet or digital communication. We agreed that at least every national congress of our organizations would have international invitations, in order to continue accumulating forces as a whole. In 1992, the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, the first of its kind organized by the United Nations to deal with the environmental issue. It was there that Fidel Castro delivered his famous speech.

In that context we invited all the peasant organizations and held a parallel assembly – since the summit was only for presidents. It was there that we decided to launch the Latin American Coordinating Committee of Rural Organizations, the CLOC, and we set 1994 as the date for its founding congress. The venue would be Peru, and there a real articulation of peasants from all over our continent would be born.

From the 500 Years Campaign to the CLOC

In 1991, we organized a meeting in Guatemala in view of the upcoming anniversary of the 500th anniversary of the Conquest of America. There the “Continental Campaign 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance” was born, which brought together all the forces: peasants, workers, indigenous, blacks, and even sectors of the Church. The decision was then taken not to participate in the official programmed events, especially in “Spanish America” and Europe. We decided to break with all those things and dedicate ourselves to our own. The other big decision was to support the candidacy of the indigenous Mayan Quiché Rigoberta Menchú for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was then the symbol of the peasant-indigenous struggle in Guatemala, and of a civil war that had cost more than fifty thousand dead. Her own mother and other members of her family had been killed by death squads, and her father and cousin were two of the victims murdered with white phosphorus by the National Police in the Spanish Embassy massacre in Guatemala City.

Rigoberta was invited to speak at that 1991 meeting. To provide security cover for the event – Guatemala was still under dictatorship – the First Lady of France, Mrs. Danielle Mitterrand, was invited: she kept her promise and showed up without any official diplomatic agreement, just guarded by a few bodyguards. On her return to Europe, she was one of the people who contributed to raising the profile of Rigoberta’s candidacy, who was finally awarded the prize. The articulation of the campaign was to last until the year 2000. It was then that Brazil would be celebrating its 500th anniversary since Portuguese colonization. But the campaign did not progress and died out in 1994.

However, we met many people, and that was the seed from which multiple articulations were born. Then the protagonism was taken over by the Cubans, who began to promote a series of hemispheric conferences against the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) promoted by the United States since its launch by Bill Clinton in 1995. The Havana conferences were animated by Fidel Castro. The great novelty, to everyone’s enthusiasm, was that the Cuban Communist Party, still going beyond its own tradition – very much marked by the experience of the Communist Internationals – was promoting a popular type of articulation, which transcended the parties or the states. There were even people from organizations in Canada, because the FTAA was a continental “free trade” project.

Meanwhile, we peasant movements continued our specific articulation and held our first congress in February 1994 in Peru. It should be remembered that the Europeans had long had their own organization, called the European Peasant Coordination (CPE, for its French acronym). In 1995, a Dutch foundation invited the CPE and our coordinator to a conference whose objective was to set itself up as the representative of the peasantry and co-opt it with financing projects, a strategy behind which was the Dutch government. Again there was a rebellion: representatives of the CLOC and European delegates such as Paul Nicholson rejected the attempt, deciding to convene what is today La Via Campesina International, a generic name under which we identify ourselves, beyond language or country, in the defense of our own autonomous project of the peasants of the world. The first world conference was scheduled for April 1996, and was to take place in Mexico, since the Mexican peasantry enjoyed great prestige and representation.

But in the midst of that founding congress, the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre took place, in which 19 landless peasants were murdered in the south of the State of Pará, Brazil. This created a very strong pact among the five or six hundred delegates present, not counting the hosts. Not only was La Via Campesina born, but also April 17 was established as the International Day of Peasant Struggle.

From the Bolivarian Alliance to the International Peoples’ Assembly

There is a common thread that runs from the 500 Years Campaign, through the “No to the FTAA” campaign and then feeds into what today is the Articulation of Social Movements towards ALBA. It was around that time that several comrades held a historic meeting with Hugo Chávez in Barquisimeto, where this metamorphosis from the rejection of the FTAA to the construction of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) began to take shape.

In his generosity, Chavez wanted to contemplate our articulation of popular movements within the formal organization chart of ALBA, so that they would have more protagonism, on an equal footing with the governments. In fact, the original proposal included three councils: one of presidents, one of ministers and one of leaders of popular movements. But after a year we realized that this was unfeasible. Nicolás Maduro, who was Foreign Minister at the time, helped us to see the problems that this would bring: What would happen if movements of the articulation started forceful actions against governments that ALBA wanted to incorporate into its alliance? This could generate tensions, especially where the movements are very dependent on state and governmental structures. We decided to learn from the mistakes of the past and not to compromise that autonomy to fight. This gave rise to ALBA-TCP as a state and commercial articulation, while the popular organizations formed ALBA Movimientos: it was a sort of necessary divorce, mutually beneficial.

Furthermore, Chávez wanted to conform a fifth International. But in those conversations we insisted that different sectors, the communist parties, the Third International, the Trotskyists, the Stalinists, everyone would revolt. Finally Chavez was convinced to drop the name and the movements continued the talks to create what today is the International Peoples’ Assembly (IPA). This was born from the confluence of many rivers and the collective wisdom of building a map. Until then, we had a complete x-ray of the Americas and a good part of Europe, but it was still very closed: unions meeting unions, parties meeting parties, young people meeting young people, and so on.

The same came from the relations of La Via Campesina, from its international secretariat, which knew many organizations and had many contacts. There was also, as a platform, a personal knowledge of the leaders, which has a great influence; you have to have a personal trust, to know if the other leader is representative of his bases, if he is not a charlatan, if he is serious. It was never about articulation of letterheads, of acronyms. It was necessary to build a common identity: the platform is important, but it is not enough by itself.

The other path was the experience of the World Social Forum (WSF). Among the eight organizations that promoted it were the MST, the Central Única de Trabajadores de Brasil, the NGOs, the Europeans, etc. We promoted a world assembly of the World Social Forum (WSF). We promoted a world assembly of popular movements and launched the call within the Forum, but it did not take off because many people were not militants, they had an NGO logic, and because the assemblies, without delegation criteria or a defined agenda, turned out to be somewhat anarchic, especially after 2009. Nevertheless, the WSF was an important precedent that broadened our map and established certain political trust. Also important were the conferences on the Dilemmas of Humanity, organized as a space for sharing visions and strategic proposals for the future.

The paths that converged in the IPA were multiple, and through them we forged alliances that led us to Asia and especially to regions of Africa of which we knew almost nothing, except in the case of some Portuguese-speaking countries. Throughout this process, a political identity, a programmatic unity and, above all, a human trust was forged.

A matter of principle

Peasants are equal all over the world, and so are workers. Didn’t the Communist Manifesto already say that we should unite? Internationalism is not for us charity, nor is it propaganda. It is a principle, and all the practical actions of the MST are framed in it. Thus emerged the campaigns of solidarity with what are perhaps the two most resistant peoples in the world: the Cuban and the Palestinian. Then came the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and we tried to practice with these countries a two-way internationalism, of giving and receiving, of learning and teaching. We then inserted these concerns in our publications, in the training of our militants and in the creation of an International Relations Collective that could give organicity to these ideas.

In general, in the leftist tradition, a guy who spent his whole life flying from one country to another was appointed secretary of international relations. I remember a leader whose passport only lasted a year, because at that time he filled all its pages with stamps. Only he was an “internationalist”. From those mistakes we learned and promoted the strict division of tasks, the rotation of militants and leaders in international tasks, gender parity, and generational diversity: without delay and without excuses. All this nourishes the movement with the practice and experience of internationalism, and not just two or three chosen ones.

We also gave an international character to the Florestan Fernandes National School (ENFF). We have always said that the MST is only its guardian, who holds the key. But the programs, the students, the teachers, everything is the patrimony of the international working class. The ENFF followed the same path: at the beginning only peasants came and other articulations and numerous countries joined, in courses in Spanish, Portuguese, English and, before the pandemic, with an international course in French for the training of trainers.

Then the experiences of the international brigades also arose, something that of course was not our invention. We only took up a historical experience and multiplied it at the request of various countries and organizations. We always try to remind the militants we prepare for these experiences that they should open their eyes and ears, that they are not going to teach anything but to learn a lot. Besides the fact that the physical presence and the development of tasks is already a demonstration of concrete solidarity, the brigades are an intensive course of formation of cadres. Anyone who spends years in Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, South Africa or Zambia will never be the same again. They will now have the experience of another language, another culture, a more pluralistic vision of reality. On his return, they will be more committed, more flexible, more reflective, and less sectarian.

We even had a brigade in East Timor, a country on the other side of the world that few could point out on the map, sharing an adult literacy methodology. We could also mention the experience of our publisher Expressão Popular, which has always had a collection of international issues. And how could we not mention the Cuban experience of the Latin American School of Medicine and Operation Miracle, encouraging legacies of Fidel Castro that have always illuminated the way.

The important thing is that in all these processes, which are already part of the long history of internationalism, we always maintained the political will to meet, to weave alliances, to practice a concrete, fraternal, supportive, militant internationalism, without illuminations or sectarianism. Our motto has always been to play, not to be afraid to create and, above all, never to stop conspiring.

This text is a preview of the book Internacionalistas, coordinated by Gonzalo Armúa and Lautaro Rivara and published in 2022 by Batalla de Ideas and the Tricontinental Institute of Social Research.

João Pedro Stedile is a member of the national leadership of the largest social movement in Latin America – The Landless Workers Movement, MST.

Translation to English by Resumen Latinoamericano – English.