By Ruth Needleman. This article was first published on Portside.
The great insurgencies that brought back democracy to many countries in Latin America after decades of military dictatorship are now targets of growing assaults by police, military and private militias. From Honduras to Argentina, from Brazil to Colombia, labor, indigenous and black social movements are embattled. The governments’ criminalization of social movements is “legitimizing” death squads, murders and in some cases massacres.

A recent video, sent to me by a university professor in northern Brazil, features an indigenous woman activist pleading for help from all her brother and sister movement activists to publicize the genocidal attacks against the Guarani people in Matto Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Her story is far from isolated or unique. African descendant and indigenous communities have been targeted because they live on lands that agribusiness, mining industries and financiers want to exploit.

In Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and so on, these communities have survived in isolation, in distant places they had fled to during colonization and slavery. Often in hard-to-access places, on mountains and unpopulated areas, indigenous and African descendant communities had begun to receive support and sometimes protections from more democratic governments. Certainly in Brazil, beginning with the election of Lula in 2002, the right to self-determination and the resources for self-sustainability were provided and protected by the federal government. New laws, codes and programs multiplied, based on President Lula’s public acknowledgement that former policies had amounted to genocide. Land was being returned to communities, with access to health care, employment, housing  and training.

Since former vice-president Michel Temer took over the presidency of Brazil through what was certainly a congressionally-maneuvered coup, all the commissions, social programs and new laws are being undone. Now there is a resurgence of the kind of military state that had existed after the 1964 fascist coup.

The recent attack against the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has reached the world social media. The plea for the Guarani has dropped from public scrutiny.

MST

The MST is one of the oldest, largest social movements in Brazil, part of an even larger movement of rural workers throughout Latin America. The MST was a vital part of the Workers’ Party coalition that brought Lula and then Dilma to power. Thousands of poor rural workers were able to win the right to lands through occupation and court decisions.

The Temer government is focusing on criminalizing the MST in order to stop resistance to its policies: close down its schools, wipe out those who will lead resistance, at the same time recapturing lands for neo-liberal interests, looking to profit from palm oil, mining, and other export crops.

The MST has built a network of schools throughout Brazil that are based on popular education, teaching political economy, history, and advanced agricultural techniques in ways that grow self-confidence and critical consciousness, along with organizing skills based on relationship-building and community. The MST has contributed to developing a new generation of critical and deeply humane leaders who value the earth, community and justice.

I have met some of these committed social justice organizers. More than ten years ago I gave a talk to rural activists from all over Latin America at Florestan Fernandes, sharing my experiences in Allende’s Chile. The participants ranged in age from 16 to 60. They were astute politically, passionate in their commitment, and their questions were insightful.

MST’s educational programs are very threatening to the Temers and Trumps of the world. The pedagogy of their schools is transformative. It was this remarkable educational center, Florestan Fernandes, that was invaded by police firing guns just a week ago on November 4, 2016. The center’s resident members were charged with criminal actions, and taken away.

The following day, 1000 people from 36 countries arrived at Florestan Fernandes to stand with the MST.

The MST has continued to be the strongest most united social movement in Brazil over the past 12 years; it is not surprising, therefore, that they became a target for police repression and criminalization.

Indigenous Communities

African descendant communities, known as Quilombos in Brazil, exist in all the Latin American countries with a heritage of slavery. Fugitive slaves set these up inside the Amazon Region and on distant mountains. African-descendant Colombians have been the central victims of death threats and murders in Colombia for some time now.

The “new” Brazilian government has launched a genocidal attack against those who occupy valuable land. In the video mentioned at the beginning, an indigent activist of the Tucanos denounces a recently-established police state in Matto Grosso do Sul where the Guarani community faces elimination through massacres. She says,

We are facing a very difficult moment in Matto Grosso do Sul; the government has created a police state, like the military state before in Brazil. National forces have been sent in. Police have arrived from state, federal and border units, and they patrol the area like lawless militias, causing genocide. They are acting in the interests of the large landowners and big business.

Speaking with difficulty through tears, she begs her brothers and sisters from every movement in Brazil to help publicize their plight before the Guarani are eliminated.

The indigenous people of this land are under assault, the poorest and original people of this land. We have suffered the worst genocide of any group in the history of humanity. We need justice and we need your support in any way possible. We need your help in communicating this situation to national media and the whole country, for we have no other way of putting pressure on the government.

As right-wing governments ascend to power, not just in Latin America but in the US as well, international solidarity represents survival for many of our communities.  Those most vulnerable communities are under attack:

You who are our brothers and sisters we ask for you to share this message. It is necessary to talk about this now within all the social movements. In the weeks ahead you will see a war and massacres. We will be cut down. We are very few; there are so few of us left. We need help against this massacre of our indigenous people. Please help us!

It is a global fight against racism and genocide, whether Standing Rock or Matto Grosso in Brazil, Chicago or Sao Paulo.

Brazilian Embassy: (202) 238-2700

U.S. State Department: (202) 647-6575

Ruth Needleman, professor emerita, Indiana University

Ruth Needleman

Ruth Needleman, professor emerita, Indiana University