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The murder of Dorothy Stang, a 73 year-old American nun who helped peasants engage in sustainable agriculture in the Amazonian rain forest, comes as oligarchic interests and the parliamentary right are on a political offensive against the government of Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva. This takes place as fissures are opening up within Lula’s governing Workers Party while social organizations are mobilizing to demand the implementation of reforms Lula aligned himself with before he became president.
"This is a low-point of Lula’s presidency," says Marcos Arruda of PACS, a political and social research institute based in Rio de Janeiro. "There is no excuse for his failure to implement major social reforms, especially land redistribution, as he continues to follow the neo-liberal recipes dictated by the International Monetary Fund and Washington." The government has maintained budget surpluses of 4% or more each of his two years in office to pay off international debts. The IMF alone has received over $40 billion in interest and principal repayments under Lula on a loan package of $58 billion initiated in 1998.
Sister Dorothy’s assassination by two hired gunman reflects the continued assault by landed and logging interests on those who stand in the way of their plundering of the Amazon. Stang, a naturalized Brazilian citizen, worked in the Amazonian state of Para with 600 families involved in cultivating native fruits and vegetables while tending dairy cattle that feed on local forage. During the past year in Para alone more than 20 people have been murdered in land disputes.
Lula did respond dramatically to Stang’s assassination. He established a cabinet level task force, set aside two huge preservation parks, declared that large "land usurpers" in the Amazon would not be tolerated anymore, and sent over 2000 Federal police to pursue the assassins and their backers.
While this scene was unfolding, an upheaval took place in the elections for the president of the lower house of the Brazilian congress. In the previous two years Lula’s Worker’s Party had secured the post by pasting together a coalition of parties. This year, however, the Worker’s Party itself was deeply divided between those backing Lula, and those who were fed up with the slow pace of social reforms. As a result the right wing along with the centrist parties maneuvered to put their own candidate in the presidency, Severino Cavalcantia. He is known as "the king of the lower clergy" because of his alignment with right wing oligarchic and religious interests. One of his first actions was to increase congressional salaries and extent vacation times.
This takeover comes as a campaign is taking place to roll back even the limited reforms of Lula’s early years. A few paltry taxes were levied on the rich, and a modest, and some would say "very meager" anti-hunger program was launched. Headlines in the right wing dominated press now scream about the high taxes that Brazilians supposedly pay while proclaiming that the Brazilian government, unlike the rest of the world, is not in lockstep with neo-liberalism by cutting back on "wasteful" and "corrupt" federal spending programs.
Within the Workers Party, the dissidents are divided. A limited group is opting to abandon the party and calling for the formation of a new political organization. Most believe a struggle should be waged within the party to reclaim its historic agenda of fighting for the poor, the workers and the dispossessed.
The largest social organization in Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement with strong links to the Workers Party going back to the 1980s, is following the second strategy. It has not broken with Lula but is engaged in a process of mobilization from below. At present over 200,000 landless people are camped out along the major highways in Brazil, demanding access to idle lands. Francisco Meneses, who sits on the National Council on Nutrition and Food Security, proclaims: "If Brazil really wants to deal with hunger, the best solution is to undertake an accelerated agrarian reform program. The landless movement has very effective approaches that draw on past agrarian reform experiences from Latin America and the world in order to carry out sustainable development."
The Landless Workers Movement is calling for an "April Offensive." Starting in mid-month landless people and their sympathizers from divergent parts of the country will launch a massive march on the capital of Brazilia.
Marcos Arruda, a friend of Lula’s since the 1970s who numbers among the dissidents fighting within the Workers Party, says: "We can’t give up to the opportunists surrounding Lula who are only interested in power. They are cutting deals just like any other traditional party in Brazil. A really visionary and sustainable agrarian reform program can transform the country in memory of Sister Dorothy and the other martyrs. There is no excuse for our party and country to be aligned with the same power brokers who are traumatizing the world with conflict, repression and economic policies that ravage the earth."
ROGER BURBACH is director of the Center for the study of the Americans (CENSA) based in Berkeley, California. He is co- author with Jim Tarbell of "Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire," He released late last year "The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice."