Authoritarian elitism and popular movements in Brazil


Can a president institute radical popular change alongside structural inequality and a militarized elite? The Brazilian case suggests that a progressive political party requires more social movement mobilization, not less.

“We fought and participated in a dream to build a better Brazil, we learned a lot. We did a lot of nonsense, but that is not what characterizes us. What characterizes us is to have dared to want a better country.”

(Dilma Rousseff, 2005, a quote widely shared after her election in 2010)


Brazilian history is like a roller coaster: vertiginous ascents are followed by plummeting crashes and significant ground is covered at lightning speed – but the cars always seem to end up back where they started.

For 13 years, the scrappy, leftwing Workers’ Party (PT) governed in a country that had been dominated by conservative authoritarianism for the preceding 500 years. And change was in the air! Three consecutive PT administrations implemented programmes and policies that simultaneously reduced poverty and malnutrition, brokered inclusion with historically marginalized groups, and maintained high levels of economic growth until 2014.

But in 2016, the cars pulled back to the station. Political elites orchestrated a rightwing coup and effectively removed president Dilma and the PT from power. Within days, signature PT policies were being undone. This was a massive backlash of authoritarian elitism against popular efforts to institute real change in Brazilian politics, economy and society.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the rural areas; historical and ongoing dependence on militarized, elite modernization has effectively dispossessed a majority of the rural population from the means to exercise basic citizenship rights. A system built on the twin pillars of unequal access to land and labour requires more than just a party, it requires a truly popular politics.

The rise of the popular in a land of contradictions

The early 2000s were a heady time in Brazil. In 2002, the much-anticipated (and long-awaited, this was his fourth attempt) election of outsider, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, appeared to mark a real change in Brazilian politics. There were critical analyses defining the Workers’ Party governments as a form of progressive populism, but as the leader of metalworker strikes in the late 1970s, Lula defied first the military dictatorship and then elite neoliberalism to insist on inclusive development –a radical move in a country where a majority of the population was excluded from both the formal economy and formal politics.

As president, Lula created signature programmes such as the now-famous Bolsa Familia, which provided cash to poor families who kept their children in school and visited the doctor. Standing at the head of an uneasy alliance between right, centre-right and left, Lula committed to both economic growth, tax and pension reform, and social programmes for the poorest.

His signature initiative, the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) instituted “neo-developmentalism”  or inclusive capitalism geared towards maximizing profits that would allow for the deepening of social assistance. For rural areas, this model of development meant a territorial ordering that privileged industrial extraction for export (whether agricultural, mineral or manufacturing) over sustainability and local economies.

President Lula believed in the potential for negotiation between seemingly contradictory positions. He lionized plantation owners in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, even as he “wore the hat” of the largest grassroots social movement in Brazilian history, the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra). He thought he could find a way for agribusiness and peasant collectivism to co-exist. Part of this desire for comprise in the face of apparent contradiction came from the necessity to establish a coalition government; political alliances with the right and centre-right meant that the PT was committed to working with the contradictions (instead of against them) even before it took office.

Under Lula (2003-2010) and Dilma Roussef (2011-2016), the Workers’ Party government managed to walk this razor edge between social inclusion and economic extraction. Social movements worked with the PT, refraining from active protest in order to partner on reform. Brazil enjoyed a decade or more of high commodity prices and economic growth, and began to export its programmes worldwide, taking on new missions of political import, leading the UN mission in Haiti after 2004 and signing agreements with African leaders to bring Brazilian experience and technology to developing countries.

In 2013, however, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets mobilizing first against increased bus fares and gaining momentum as the protests tapped into a “reservoir of complaints”, including bloated expenditures on the Olympic Games and diminishing social support. A year later, protestors took to the streets again, this time mobilizing against corruption and calling for Dilma’s ouster. Incited by the famously-conservative national media and organized by large industrial associations, protests were marked by expressions of rage against the so-called leftwing alliance and the very idea of inclusive development.

When Dilma narrowly won re-election in 2014, the conservative Congress moved quickly – Dilma’s pursuit of politicians who had taken bribes in the now-famous ‘Operation Car Wash’ threatened elite privileges and – like the part of the roller coaster ride where everyone is upside-down – the establishment put her on the chopping block, charging her with corruption and calling for her impeachment.

Protestors on both sides took to the street again, dividing Brazilian society. Although corruption charges never stuck, Dilma was successfully impeached three months later in 2016. As one observer said, “they lost power because they did the right thing.”

A new rural world

Only days after being impeached, a new government formed with Dilma’s vice president who was also the head of one of the largest right-wing parties in the coalition government. Michel Temer (Fora Temer!) immediately began reorganizing both politics and economy at the highest levels. He reserved his most regressive attacks for the rural world, fulfilling his promises and agreements to the Ruralist Block; powerful congress people representing agribusiness, who fully supported Dilma’s impeachment.

With Dilma and the PT out of the way, the plans for a “new rural world” echoed an earlier neoliberal agenda with budget cuts and setbacks in several agrarian programmes. Social movements such as the MST – the Landless Workers Movement, weakened by over two decades of aggressive criminalization, increased violence and internal division, found it difficult to mobilize against the agenda.

Within weeks, Temer’s administration had abolished the Ministry of Agrarian Development and slashed the budgets of the national institutes for land reform (INCRA), indigenous rights (FUNAI) and the environment (IBAMA).

He subjected areas under social protections (indigenous reserves, extractive reserves and conservation areas) to “revision,” threatening decades of hard-won access to land. Eschewing all talk of a “marriage,” he empowered the famously conservative and hierarchical Ministry of Agriculture, appointing the world’s largest single soy producer as minister. Temer also announced his intention to abolish the prohibition against foreign land ownership, a prohibition that Lula had instituted in the wake of heightened awareness of increasing large-scale land acquisitions around the world, with Brazilian land, particularly in the interior grasslands region, a major attraction.

In the time that Temer has been in office, land reform has ground to a halt and attacks on the rural poor have increased radically. Brazil is now one of the deadliest countries in the world for indigenous and rural activists. At the same time, the Car Wash corruption scandal has spread explosively across Congress, affecting over two-thirds of all standing congress officials (but not Dilma).

A truly new rural world?

In response to Temer and the return to increasingly regressive modes of extraction and exclusion, rural activists and movements have organized protests, such as occupying Temer’s “family farm” in western São Paulo during 2017’s “Red April.” They are reorganizing after struggling to determine their place under the PT.

Groups like the MST call on Brazilians to protest against the coordinated assault on life. What such social movements call for is not so radical. They call for organization across states with growing “alt-right” political tendencies. They call for land redistribution, food sovereignty, local control over resource decisions, more equitable distribution of access to resources and less submissiveness to the short-term violent dictates of capital.

Were these to be implemented, this would truly be a new rural world in Brazil, one worth dreaming about.


Wendy Wolford is Polson Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell University, USA. Email:

Sérgio Sauer is a sociology professor in the Post-Graduate Program on Environment and Rural Development (MADER) at the University of Brasília, Planaltina, and holds a scholarship grant from CNPq. A long-time organizer for social justice and rural development, Sérgio has published widely in the fields of agrarian studies, environmental sociology, land reform, social movements and the political economy of agriculture in Latin America.




By            :               Wendy Wolford and Sergio Sauer

Date         :               March 5, 2018

Source     :               Open Democracy

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