Standing by Lula

The Landless Workers’ Movement, which puts ending hunger as its first priority, is in the front line of the struggle to enable jailed former President Lula da Silva to run in the October presidential election.

Published : May 09, 2018 12:30 IST

Lula da Silva chats with a member of the MST at Itatiaiucu in the State of Minas Gerais on February 21.

Lula da Silva chats with a member of the MST at Itatiaiucu in the State of Minas Gerais on February 21.

LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA, Brazil’s former President, sits in a prison in Curitiba, a six-hour drive from his home in Sao Paulo. All opinion polls taken after Lula was imprisoned show him in the lead in October’s presidential election. Lula’s Workers’ Party continues to stand by him. He is its candidate for President. The closest rival to Lula is the Far Right’s Jair Bolsonaro, who is far behind Lula in the polls. Bolsonaro is the candidate of the oligarchy, which, many say, now seeks to consolidate its power through a judicial, rather than a military, coup.

The airport in Sao Paulo is quiet in the morning. The line is not long, and the sensibility is light. At passport control, the man asks me why I am visiting the country. “To see Lula,” I say in jest. He laughs, slaps my hand, turns around and tells his colleagues what I have said. They all laugh. The government has prevented many people from seeing Lula, including his successor Dilma Rousseff. The workers at passport control are not in the mood to be stern. Brazil is tense; political conflict is on the surface. It is nice to have a laugh to break the tension.


You die of old age before you’re thirty

From an ambush before you’re twenty

From hunger a little every day.

(Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, Morte e Vida Severina , 1955.)

Sao Paulo’s Afro-Brazilian museum highlights the work of Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977). The Afro-Brazilian writer reflected on her life in the favelas (shanty towns) of the city. The main character in her novels is hunger, which began to appear to Carolina Maria de Jesus as the colour yellow. “What a surprising effect food has on our organisms,” she wrote in her diary of the shanty town ( Quarto de Despejo , 1960). “Before I ate, I saw the sky, the trees, the birds—all as yellow. But after I ate, everything became normal to my eyes.”

When Lula came to office in 2002, he did not have a radical agenda. But one issue seized him—hunger. That year, Fernando Meirelle’s outstanding Oscar-winning film City of God traced the contours of hunger in the favelas. The powerful film highlighted the misery of shanty towns, places that would have been familiar to Carolina Maria de Jesus. It was no surprise that Lula went after hunger. He came from a family that knew hunger and he had made it clear that he would confront this epidemic in his country.

Lula’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) programme provided immediate relief to the hungry and also drew up long-term policies to tackle food insecurity in the country. Through the income transfer programme called Bolsa Familia, the Lula government turned over money to a quarter of the population. Access to education and health care as well as provision of food for children enhanced the livelihood of the deprived section of Brazil’s population. For its long-term agenda, Lula’s government set up measures to help family farmers, who provide 70 per cent of Brazil’s food.

Strikingly, 35 million Brazilians out of a population of over 200 million people were able to rise above the poverty line. In 2010, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) honoured Lula as a “Global Champion in the Battle Against Hunger”. Four years later, the U.N. removed Brazil from the world hunger map. This is a feat that would have pleased Carolina Maria de Jesus.

It was perhaps inevitable that the government of Michel Temer, who came to power through a legislative coup against Dilma Rousseff, has withdrawn many of the elements of the Fome Zero programme. Hunger rates have begun to climb upwards. The U.N. now suggests that Brazil might return to the hunger map.

Not surprisingly, hunger rates in Brazil are marked by the history of race. The museum of Afro-Brazilians depicts the terrifying reality of Brazilian slavery. The marks of that history cannot be erased easily. They linger in the prose of Carolina Maria de Jesus and in the paintings of Maria Auxiliadora (1935-1974) as well as in the films of Nelson Pereira dos Santos (1928-2018). Dos Santos’ Vida Secas (Barren Lives, 1963) tells the story of poverty set in Brazil’s north-east, from where Lula hails.


When I die

Tired of war

I’ll die happy

With my land.

(Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Terra , 1977.)

Joao Pedro Stedile is an economist and one of the leaders of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). In Sao Paulo, we are drinking grape juice manufactured by the MST’s cooperative factory. It is delicious. Joao Pedro tells me about his family, which left Italy under compulsion to come to southern Brazil. Wine is essential to the Italian peasantry, so these peasants tried to make wine in their new country. They grew grapes from North America, with the colourful names of Niagara and Isabel. But the wine produced from them was atrocious. This did not stop them from drinking it.

Eventually, large multinational firms entered Brazil’s wine market, bringing more sophisticated grapes for the wine industry. The juice that came from Niagara and Isabel was no longer needed for the wine. It was turned into grape juice, the juice Joao Pedro was drinking as he told me this story.

The MST emerged out of the movement of peasants to seize land for cultivation and for settlement. It was formally created in 1984. Four years later, as a result of the mass seizures of farmland by peasants, the government passed a law that required the property to have a “social function”. The new law allowed the government to “expropriate for the purpose of agrarian reform”. This law enabled the MST to continue to seize land for people’s well-being. It is what has enabled the organisation to now have almost two million members. Not only has the MST created agricultural settlements of farmland and homeland, but it has set up processing facilities and factories as well as schools and hospitals. It has, in fact, created an alternative to a state that for many years was uninterested in the well-being of most of the population.

The MST’s cooperative decided to build a processing plant to convert the grapes into juice. Capital was in short supply. Lula’s government was not opening the spigot of money for these projects. Joao Pedro and his colleagues approached Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for a loan. Venezuela complied, and the factory was built. The MST repaid Venezuela in grape juice, which was provided free to children in Venezuelan schools.

A problem emerged. The MST packs its juice in glass bottles. Glass, however, posed a problem. In Uruguay, a glass factory had been taken over by workers. Joao Pedro tells me that the MST wanted to help set up a glass factory in Brazil. But finances were not available. Venezuelan teachers did not want glass bottles in the classroom. So, the MST had to package the juice in Tetra Pak cartons, which are expensive. The Swiss company that makes these packs has not dropped its cost. There is no way to go around its patent. No easy alternative is available. Joao Pedro says that the MST is looking for a new way to package grape juice.

The grape juice that enters Venezuela’s schools is part of a project initiated by the Venezuelan government to provide food for the very hungry. This is not a project that often gets into the news, where there is a virtual consensus about starvation in Venezuela. In December, the U.N. envoy, Alfred de Zayas, declared that “the so-called humanitarian crisis does not exist in Venezuela, although there are shortages, scarcity and distribution delays”. There are serious problems in Venezuela as there are in Brazil. Policies to help address hunger are either set aside (as in Brazil) or used to create political chaos (as in Venezuela).

The streets of Sao Paulo seem normal. But there is an electric energy around. The word “Lula” has come to mean rebelliousness. The MST has been at the front line of the struggle to free Lula and allow him to run in October’s election. Its members know how the lines are drawn, between an oligarchy that cares little for the people’s hunger and a political movement that puts ending hunger as its first priority.

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