João Pedro Stédile of the MST: ’We are in the midst of an ideological battle’
1 July by Nilton Viana
João Pedro Stédile Interviewed by Brasil de Fato
Brasil de Fato — It is time for the government to ally itself with the people or pay the price in the future. This is one of the evaluations of João Pedro Stedile, national coordinator of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) on the recent mobilisations across the country.
According to Stédile, there is an urban crisis installed in Brazilian cities, provoked by the current stage of financial capitalism. “For people, large cities have becoming a living hell where they lose three or four hours a day in transit, which they could instead be using to spend with their family, studying or participating in cultural activities”, he says. For the MST leader, reducing public transport fare prices was of great interest to all the people and this was what the Free Fare Movement got right by calling for mobilisation on behalf of the interests of the people.
In this exclusive interview with Brasil de Fato, Stédile talks about the character of these mobilisations, and puts a call out: we must be conscious of the nature of these protests and go all out onto the street to fight for hearts and minds and politicise this youth who have no experience of class struggle. “The youth are tired of this way of doing bourgeois and money-driven politics”, he notes. And he issues a warning: the worst thing is that the parties of the institutional left, all of them, have adapted to these methods. Old and bureaucratised. Popular forces and leftist parties need to put all their energies to going out onto the street, because in every city, in every protest, there is now an ongoing ideological dispute between different class interests. “We need to explain to the people who are the main enemies of the people.”
Brasil de Fato: What is your analysis of the protests that have shaken Brazil in the last few weeks? What are the economic roots of these events?
Joao Pedro Stédile: There have been many opinions as to why these protests occurred. I agree with the analysis of Professor Erminia Maricato, who is one of our best specialists in urban issues and has worked in the Ministry of Cities under Olivio Dutra. She defends the thesis that there is an urban crisis in Brazil’s cities, a result of the current stage of financial capitalism. Due to an enormous amount of housing speculation, rent and land prices have increased 150% in the last three years. Without any government control, financial capital has promoted the sales of cars in order to send profits overseas and transformed our traffic into chaos. And in the last 10 years there has been no investment in public transport. The housing program “My home, my life” has driven the poor out to the periphery of the cities, where there is no infrastructure.
All this has generated a structural crisis where for people, large cities have becoming a living hell where they lose three or four hours a day in transit, which they could instead be using to spend with their family, studying or participating in cultural activities. Added to this is the poor quality of public services, especially health and education, from the primary and secondary level, where children leave without being able to write. And university education has become a business, where of 70% of university students’ diplomas are sold on credit.
And from the political point of view, why did this occur?
Fifteen years of neoliberalism plus the last 10 years of a government of class conciliation has transformed politics into a hostage of capital’s interests. Parties became old in their way of functioning and have been transformed into mere acronyms that mainly bring together opportunists interested in winning public posts or fighting over public resources for their own interests.
All the young people who were born after the right-wing parties were no longer in government have not had the opportunity to participate in politics. Today, to compete for any public post, for example, to become a local councillor, a person needs to have more than 1 million reales; to become a deputy costs around 10 million. The capitalist pay and the politicians obey. The youth are tired of this way of doing bourgeois and money-driven politics.
The worst thing is that the parties of the institutional left, all of them, adapted themselves to these methods. Which is what has generated repulsion towards the way parties behave among the youth. Young people are not apolitical; on the contrary, they are so much so that they took politics to the streets, even if they were not conscious of what this signified. But what they were saying is that they no longer tolerate seeing these political practices on television, seeing peoples’ votes taken hostage by lies and manipulation.
And why did the protests only explode now?
It was probably more a product of diverse factors regarding the psychology of the masses, than the result of some pre-planned political decision. We have the climate created by everything I have talked about, as well as the denunciations of corruption in relation of the stadiums being built, which was a provocation for the people. For example: Red Globo received 20 million reales of public money from the state government of Rio and the mayor’s office to organise a show of barely two hours around the match draw for the Confederations Cup. The stadium in Brasilia cost 1400 million and there are no buses in the city!
It is an explicit dictatorship that FIFA has imposed and all the government have subordinated themselves to.
The reinauguration of the Maracaná was a slap in the face of the Brazilian people. The photos were clear, in the most important temple of world football, there was not a single black or mestizo person!
And the increase in bus fares was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the spark that set alight the generalised sentiment of revolt, of indignation. Finally, the youth have stood up.
Why has the working class still not come out onto the streets?
It’s true; the working class has still not come out onto the streets. Those who have come out onto the streets are the children of the middle class, of the lower middle class and some youth of what Andre Singer calls the sub-proletariat, who study and work in the service sector, who have improved their purchasing power, but who want to be heard.
Reducing the fare was of great interest to all the people, and therein lies the success of the “free fare” movement, which knew how to call protests that were held in the name of the interests of the people. And the people supported the protests, as was expressed in their level of popularity among the youth, above all when they were repressed.
The working class takes it time to mobilise, but once it moves, it directly affects capital. Something that has not happened yet. I believe that the organisations that act as mediators for the working class have still not comprehended the moment we are in and are a bit timid. But I believe that the class, as a class, is also willing to fight. Look at the number of strikes for wage increases which have returned to 1980s level. I think it’s just a question of time, and if the right demands are raised that can motivate the class to mobilise.
In the last few days, we have sensed that in some of the smaller cities and in the periphery of the larger cities, mobilisations with very localised demands have begun to emerge. And that is very important.
And the MST and campesinos also have not mobilised yet …
That’s true. In the capitals where we have settlements and farming families live close by, we are participating. Moreover, I witnessed the warm reception we received when we arrived with our red flag and our demand for land reform and cheap and health food for all. I believe that in the next weeks we could see even bigger numbers joining in, including through staging campesino protests in the streets and municipalities of the interior. Among our activists all of them are going crazy wanting to enter into the fight and mobilise. I hope they are able to move quickly ...
What is your opinion as to the origins of the violence that has occurred in some of these demonstrations?
First, we should put this in context. The bourgeoisie, via its television stations, has used the tactic of scaring people by only broadcasting propaganda that shows troublemakers and rioters. They are a minority and insignificant in front of the thousands of people that are mobilising. The right wing has a vested interest in convincing people that all this simply amounts to chaos, and in the end, if there is chaos, put the blame on the government and demand the presence of the armed forces. I hope that the government does not commit the brutish crime of calling on the national guard and the armed forces to repress the protesters. That is exactly what the right is dreaming about!
The scenes of violence are being provoked by the way in which the military police are intervening. There are organised rightist groups that are focused on creating provocations and looting. In Sao Paulo, fascist groups are active in the protests. In Rio de Janeiro, the organised militias that protect conservative politicians are also involved. It is also evident that there is a layer of lumpens that turn up to any popular mobilisation, whether in the stadiums, carnivals, even church parties, and try to make the most of it for themselves.
So we are faced with a class struggle in the streets or are we simply dealing with a youth that it demonstrating its indignation?
It is evident that there is a class struggle going on in the streets, even if for now it is at the level of an ideological dispute. What is worse is that the mobilised youth themselves, due to their class origins, are not conscious of the fact that they are participating in an ideological struggle.
Look, they are doing politics in the best way possible, in the streets. And they are writing on their placards: we are against parties and politics? That is why the messages on their placards have been so widely disseminated. In every city, in every protest, there is a permanent ideological dispute of struggle between class interests. There is a struggle to see if whether the ideas of the left or right will win over the youth. The ideas of the capitalists or the working class.
What are the objectives of the right and their proposals?
The ruling class, the capitalists and their ideological spokespeople whot appear on television every day have one big objective: wear down as much as possible the support for the Dilma [Rousseff] government, weaken the organisational forms of the working class, weaken the proposals for structural changes to Brazilian society and win the 2014 elections in order to reimpose their total hegemony over the command of the Brazilian state which is currently in dispute.
To achieve these objectives they are still testing, alternating their tactics. Sometimes they provoke violence in order to distract from the objectives of the youth. Sometimes they put messages on the placards of the youth. For example, in the demonstrations on June 22, even if small, in Sao Paulo it was totally manipulated by rightist sectors who put forward a sole focus on the struggle against PEC 37 [a proposal to amend the constitution and remove the power of the public ministry to investigate crimes], with the same placards ... the exact same placards. No doubt the majority of the youth did not know what this was about. And it is a secondary issue with the working class, but the right wing is trying to raise the banner of morality, just like the National Democratic Union did in times gone by.
I have seen in the social media networks controlled by the right, that its banners are, as well as PEC 37: Expel Renan from the Senate, CPI [Commission of Parliamentary Inquiry] or transparency in spending on the World Cup; declare corruption to be a grave crime and put an end to the special protections for politicians. The fascist groups are already saying Dilma Out! and raising a number of accusations. Happily, these issues have nothing to do with the living conditions of the masses, even if the corporate media can manipulate them. And objectively, that are a shooting themselves in the foot. In the end, it is the Brazilian bourgeoisie, its business owners and politicians who are the most corrupt and corrupting. Who has appropriated the exaggerated spending on the World Cup? Red Globo and the contractor companies!
What are the challenges facing the working class, popular organisations and left parties?
There are many challenges. First, we must be conscious of the nature of these demonstrations and all go out onto the streets to fight for hearts and minds and politicise this youth that has no experience in the class struggle. Second, the working class needs to mobilise. Come out onto the streets, protest in the factories, farms and construction sites, as Geraldo Vandré would say. Raise their demands in order to resolve concrete problems of the class, from the political and economic viewpoint.
We need to take the initiative and guide public debate towards demanding the approval of laws to reduce the working week to 40 hours; demand that the priorities for public investment be health, education, land reform. But to do this the government must reduce interest rates and reallocate the resources from the primary surplus, those 200,000 million that each year go to only 20,000 rich people, rentiers and creditors of an internal debt that we never contracted, and reallocate them for productive and social investment.
It must approve an emergency decree so that for the next election a progressive political reform has been put in place, one that as a minimum institutes exclusive public funding for campaigns, the right to recall elected officials and the ability for the people to convoke popular referendums.
We need tax reform so that once again ICMS [a state sales tax] is paid on primary exports and the wealth of the rich is penalised while taxes are reduced for poor, who currently are the ones who pay more.
We need the government to suspend the auctioning off our oil and all private concessions for minerals and other public areas. There is no point investing all the royalties from oil in education if those royalties only represent 8% of the oil rent, and the remaining 92% goes to the transnational companies that will get control over the oil in these auctions!
A structural urban reform that once again prioritises quality and free public transport. It has already been proven that it will not be expensive or difficult to introduce free transport for the people in the capitals. And control housing speculation.
And finally, we need to make use of and approve a project for a national conference on media and communication, one that is broadly representative, to discuss democratising the media. To put an end to Globo’s monopoly, and ensure that the people and its popular organisations can have wide access to means for communication, to create their own media with public resources. I have heard from a diversity of youth movements that are organising the marches that perhaps this could be the one issue that unites them all: down with Globo’s monopoly!
But for these issues to reverberate more broadly in society and put pressure on the government and the politicians, we nee to mobilise the working class, this is the only way.
The social movements sent a letter asking to meet with President Dilma and she accepted and responded on television, what issues are you going to take to her?
I have faith that the meeting will happen soon. And there all of the social movements will send their young representatives that where in the streets, and will bring along a platform like the one I outlined. I hope that she has the sensibility to listen to the youth.
What should the government do now?
I hope that the government has the sensibility and intelligence to make use of this support, this clamour that is coming from the streets, which is simply a synthesis of a consciousness that exists more broadly in society that it is time to change. And change to benefit the people. For this, the government needs to confront the dominant class, in all aspects. Confront the rentier bourgeoisie, reallocating interest payments to investment in areas that resolve the problems of the people. Promote as soon as possible political and tax reforms. Sent in motion the approval of a law to democratise the media. Create mechanisms for massive investment in public transport, with the aim of making it free. Speed up land reform and a healthy food production plan for the internal market.
Guarantee the shift application of 10% of GDP towards public resources for education at all levels, from childcare centres in the big cities, quality primary education all the way to the universalisation of access to public university for young people.
Without this, people will feel deceived, and the government will have handed over the initiative over demands to the right, which will lead to new protests aimed at wearing down support for the government up until the 2014 elections. It is time for the government to align itself with the people, or pay the price in the future.
And what perspectives could these mobilisations bring for the country in the next few months?
Everything is still unknown. Because the youth and the masses are in dispute. That is why popular forces and leftist parties have to put all their energies towards coming out onto the streets. Protest, push to raise as banners of struggle demands that are in the interests of the people. Because the right will do the same, raising its conservative, backward demands of criminalisation and stigmatisation of the ideas of social change.
We are in the midst of an ideological battle, one which no one knows what the result will be. In each city, each protest, we need to fight for hearts and minds. And those that remain on the sideline, will be sidelined in history.
Translated for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Federico Fuentes