João Paulo Rodrigues: “Brazil Has a Great Responsibility in Latin America”

Brasil de Fato
MST national leader, João Paulo Rodrigues – Guilherme Santos/Sul21

João Paulo Rodrigues is a member of the national coordination of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and represents the MST within Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s campaign for the presidency of Brazil. 

In an interview with Brasil de Fato, Rodrigues speaks about the upcoming 2022 Brazilian general elections.

Brasil de Fato: What is your analysis of the elections for the Left? What are the chances of a Lula victory?

João Paulo Rodrigues: I am very optimistic. And it is due to the economy. Not because of alliances, or crises, or anything else, but because Bolsonaro made a bet on the economy that left the people poorer, unemployed and bankrupt. This defuses any other strategy, period. It doesn’t matter if [Bolsonaro] trusts God, or that he goes to church, no. People want to know: “will I get a salary?”, “will I have something to eat?”, “will I have a job?”

Think about it, we’ll have until Christmas, even when receiving Emergency Aid. I’m talking about an amount of 50 million people who live in extremely precarious food situations. Or even someone that doesn’t know what they will eat. Between those who have nothing to eat and those who eat poorly, there are 100 million. Consider half, 50 million. It is a lot of people. Of every 4 Brazilians, 1 has nothing to eat. This issue embarrasses the middle class and causes indignation in those who experience this situation.

BDF: The right enters this election with a high number of candidates in the business sector. There are also many militant policemen, mainly in the Liberal Party (PL), Bolsonaro’s party, and people linked to agribusiness. If elected, how do you think those right-wing politicians will govern?

JPR: I haven’t done a deep analysis yet. It would take more time. There is a lot of guesswork there. I think that the previous campaign in 2018, gave importance to the internet and the so-called “digital influencer”, electing who was prominent on the right and so on.

I think that this election is now very much tied to money. It’s a different election and it’s going to be very much tied to sectors that benefit from the secret budget [an opaque way that Bolsonaro transfers funds to support the projects of politicians who support him] more than anything. And sectors that were supported by evangelical groups, also have a lot of resources. So this opposition parliamentary caucus will be made up of money. The one with the most will win.

I don’t believe it will be composed of by digital influencers. I believe that even the policemen will come out defeated. They no longer have the strength they had in 2018. And if you look at the elected policemen, they haven’t shown what they came for so far. Even the right wing and their candidates…What was the greatest achievement that the police had with the support of the Army? The police that had achievements were the officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force and some sectors of the Military Police. The great majority of the police and the Armed Forces are all more impoverished now than they were before. So I don’t see a problem there.

Now, businessmen have problems. This sector is going to elect a lot of people because they have money, which is essential right now.

BDF: Do you believe that international politics could have an influence on the Brazilian elections?

JPR: We must always be on the lookout for Americans, the moves they make around the world are, I think, a risk factor, always. US experiences in Latin America have always been dubious, although this Democratic administration has been very careful.

Colombia is an example. They were wrong with Bolivia and Venezuela, they lost badly. So I think that they have realized that there is no point in trying to generate a coup right now in Latin America.

Now, US disputes, sometimes with China, sometimes with Russia, they are always a problem. They can affect our economy, which can lead to interference in the price of fuel and food. And you can have in the middle of the elections a new international conflict that disrupts everything. This is the first wind blowing in our direction.

The second is the behavior of Latin America. It seems to me that the region has a great novelty, which is an organization of several countries aligned to the progressive movement. This is new, from Mexico to Argentina. And this can influence Brazil. I am excited that we can have the Latin American winds coming to us in the next period.

Brazil has a great responsibility in Latin America, because of its size, its economic and political relevance. But I think it will be even more relevant under the Lula government. We are missing international leaders with the ability to dialogue and convince with moral authority. Lula has this power. He is a great figure. Lula’s tour of Europe as a pre-candidate, the way they received him in France, Germany and Spain demonstrates his political importance. So I think that today, Lula is one of the few people in the world who has the ability to convene things, or to contain “crazy things” out there. Bolsonaro, nobody knows who he is. So let’s see how Lula’s position will be on the international stage, and how the other countries will behave.

I think we should be attentive to these elections. There will be a large number of international observers here. I reckon even the UN will come.

BDF: What role should the MST play in an eventual Lula government?

JPR: The main task of the MST in this next period is, first of all, the organization of its base of the landless. We cannot lose focus. [One main task is] to organize the landless encamped families, who fight for land and agrarian reform.

Then, another task is organizing the families that already have their land, in order to advance a more organized agenda of agroecology and healthy food production.

This, for us, is an essential topic because it demands designing public policies, fighting with the “agro” and having a new agenda that goes through credit, marketing policies, technical assistance, supplies…very important things.

Last but not least are the other public policies related to the countryside but not necessarily to agrarian reform. For example, electricity is not an agrarian reform policy. However, without energy, agrarian reform does not work.

And I say, jokingly, that Wi-Fi is needed. Because no one lives in the countryside anymore without an internet policy for youth, for those who live there, to sell their production.

BDF: What will a future Lula government look like?

JPR: I think that the Lula government will be representative of society. It will be a government that will make some agreements to have governance involving the National Congress. And Lula will have to build a majority in society in order to to take a step forward. The issue is that it will be a four-year government, according to Lula.

So we can’t waste time. In the first hundred days, we have to start with everything. Show them what we came for. And in this sense, there will be a combination of the symbology of the agenda, whether agrarian reform will be a priority or not, and the institutional design to implement it.

For example, we have INCRA (National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform)…Will it be autonomous from the Ministry of Agriculture again? Today it is linked to the Ministry of Agriculture. Will he create a new Ministry of Agrarian Reform to organize production? Will he appoint a Minister of Agriculture more aligned with us [MST] than with agribusiness? This institutional design, I think it is still too early to propose. It will depend on the outcome of the 1st and 2nd rounds, and the support that Lula will have to promote changes.

BDF: And for the social movements and organizations, what kind of role will they play in a possible Lula administration?

JPR: We are striving to have a programmatic elaboration, from the MST, the left, and the Workers’ Party (PT), so that the government understands that, in the first place, the Brazilian agro-industry has a lot to do with agrarian reform and we can make a tactical alliance with that sector, with a simple goal: to produce food for the Brazilian people.

What we don’t have an agreement with, and who we are going to fight is agribusiness, which is not the same thing as agro-industry. Agribusiness takes the commodities, the grains, and exports them. You don’t have the patience to industrialize anything here, contrary to the agro-industry. Agro-industry has an asset of very large production and industrialization, and a very strong chain. It’s one of our struggles. We do not want to dialogue with the export sector. They don’t need the state. They have the companies and all the infrastructure to protect themselves. On the contrary, with the Kandir Law (from 1996, exempting companies from paying taxes over commodities exportation), they generate absurd damage to the country, because the law applies to iron commodities, grains, to eucalyptus, also a little to meat and most of all to soy. Well, there we have a divergence.

Our second divergence is with the unproductive large landowners. These are the most aggressive. They carry out, among other things, land grabs, and deforestation. And now they are armed through Bolsonaro’s arms law [Bolsonaro’s laws regarding gun control have facilitated the purchase of arms].

They will be two problematic sectors in the coming period. That is why our alliance must be with family farming, landless wage earners and agro-industry. Who from the agro-industry? Those with less than 500 hectares, that produce fruits, vegetables, and have integrated production [producing crops and animals on the same farm] they produce to supply agriculture…Brazilian food. This represents 70% of production in Brazil.

What is our difficulty? The fact that [small-scale farmers] identify themselves as agribusiness…The son of a gun has 5 hectares of land, has high funding because it is integrated, for example, with pig production in Santa Catarina. They receive funds of up to 1 million per year. And they think like an “agro”. Son of a gun, you are not “agro”. You do not export one pound of anything. You are one of us, of industrialized Brazilian agriculture. With you we can unite.

The government needs to extend its plan according to this perspective. Will it work? It is very difficult, but it seems to us that the government cannot make pacts with the unproductive large landowners. They are a tragedy, and are backward. Agribusiness is a tragedy for the environment and for the creation of jobs and income nationally.

BDF: What are the challenges that Bolsonaro, or what we call Bolsonarism, has created for people’s movements?

JPR: Bolsonarism achieved a great feat we have not yet achieved, which is to transform the actions of Bolsonarism into a political culture. The other day I used, as an example, weapons.

We lost the plebiscite on weapons. It was an important fight. Today is different, Bolsonaro made weapons a cultural component. As if to say that the Brazilian smokes, drinks cachaça [Brazilian liquor], likes forró [a genre of Brazilian dance] and weapons. Period. It became an element of the culture of our people. How are you going to question the right to have a gun? No, it became something else.

This happened in our bases. There are people in the countryside who claim their right to buy a gun. It is not that they cultivate the politics of arms, but the right to have a gun or something similar. This is something that Bolsonarism created.

Another issue is that Bolsonarism has taken sectors of ours to another discourse…For example, the evangelical churches. Even those in our settlements sympathize with some proposals of Bolsonarism. How do people’s movements approach the churches, where our people are, poor people who participated in the struggle, but who have a speech aligned with the other side? It’s a problem.

The third difficulty is to deal with the idea that it is better not to have social rights, like labor laws, and to “keep my job”. How do you address this…[those] who say that they no longer have a boss and now they are happy? That they now have the power of choice? This became a political culture, it will not be easy to recover it.

If I could systematize the difficulties we face with Bolsonarism, it is that he co-opted a discourse about work. He co-opted the discourse of culture, of the people’s way of life…And finally…[he] confused the religious people that historically belonged to the poor and marginalized of this country, and today they still are, with ideas from the right and Bolsonarism.

BDF: What is your analysis of the current political situation in Brazil?

JPR: I think there is a generalized crisis in the organized sector. This includes the union movement, the political parties, everyone. And I suspect that the MST is one of the organizations that best knows how to handle these crises.

We have a difference in relation to other organizations: We have territory, we have schools, training centers, settlements, and we have materiality, with our “organic foods”.

Other movements including the union movement, with this organizational crisis, greatly weakened their relationship with society. So the MST, I say this with some care, is a successful organization in the context of this crisis and of the economy. We had no internal ruptures. We were not as repressed as we thought we would be by Bolsonaro. On the contrary, we came out of a pandemic delivering more than 6,000 tons of food. We came out of a pandemic with the lowest number of deaths in the territory of the landless.

Bolsonaro did not annihilate us as we imagined. Moreover, the organization which will soon be 40 years old, coming out of this with a level of maturity that gave us peace of mind to occupy estates anywhere in the country and to confront a National Force, as happened in Bahia, without going back, and in parallel launch the film about Marighella, made in our bases, with a lot of artists from TV Globo. Or to launch a program called “Finapop” with the famous businessmen of Avenida Faria Lima [an important avenue in São Paulo].

So it’s a novelty from a certain perspective. We make football matches that bring together hundreds of personalities, like Lula and Chico Buarque.

So the MST was able to act on several fronts that are required of a popular movement today. And the symbol is the MST hat. We sold more caps this year than in the last ten years. This represents solidarity and a political position shared with the rest of the organized left.

That’s why I think this is our best moment in the last 10 years. And the main thing is not to suffer a defeat in this next period. A defeat for Lula would mean the deflation of this political climate. A victory for Lula would mean doubling the spirit of our fighters and the prospect of future struggles that improve the lives of our people.

This article was originally published on Brasil de Fato.