Like many politicians, Brazilian president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva identified himself with different citizens by dressing like them. He seemed to delight in donning an Indian headdress or squeezing into a hard hat. Such images fit the populist message of this remarkable man, a man who rose from poverty to become leader of the labor movement that challenged the military dictatorship and helped restore democracy to Brazil, the world’s eighth largest economy. But in July 2003 when Lula placed the bright red cap of the Landless Laborers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra [MST]) on his head, all hell broke loose. Subsequent editions of nearly every news vehicle in the country featured alarmed criticism of this fateful act. Words like “rebellious,” “revolutionary” and “irresponsible” characterized the reaction as dozens of reporters were sent to the field to document the dangers posed to the country by the MST. The controversy reached the United States, where concerns on Wall Street and in Washington threatened to undermine Brazil’s fragile credit rating and international standing. By 2004, the Lula administration had carefully finessed most of the criticisms, supporting the right of the MST to mobilize and pressure the government while simultaneously investing in a conflicting agribusiness development scheme.
What is the MST? In contradistinction to the image projected by the Brazilian press, the collection of recently published books reviewed here describe it as an institutionalized social movement of unprecedented significance for Brazil and the world that does not pose an immediate revolutionary threat to society. On one book’s jacket, Eric Hobsbawm, a frequent traveler to Brazil, validates the MST as “the most ambitious social movement in contemporary Latin America” (Branford and Rocha 2002). On another’s cover, journalist Studs Terkel describes the MST as “a million or so ordinary people fighting for the right to live ordinary lives” (Wright and Wolford 2003). Founded in 1984, the MST fights for radical agrarian reform—that is, state intervention to reverse historic land concentration trends, distribute good agricultural land to needy workers, and reallocate resources to support small and cooperative farming as fundamental to the development of a stronger, more democratic and just society.
Today, the MST boasts a membership of more than 500,000 families—at least two million people—and has a presence in every state and more than 700 municipalities. The MST runs some 500 farm co-ops in the areas of production, marketing, credit, and technical assistance. It trains most of its own technicians, militants, and leaders. It has succeeded in redirecting government funds to support its administration of 1,800 elementary schools with more than 160,000 students, teaching basic literacy to 30,000 teenagers and adults, and operating a college. In the meantime, some sixty members are studying in Cuba to be doctors (MST 2004).