In February 2019, an International People’s Assembly was held in Caracas, capital of Venezuela, in solidarity with the people and government of Venezuela represented by Nicolás Maduro. Almost 500 delegates from 90 countries of the world attended the event, and one of the most ardent supporters of this initiative in the last two years is the leader of the Landless Movement of Brazil, Joao Pedro Stédile. This is an interview with him taken during the Assembly:
Carlos Aznarez: Why an International People’s Assembly now?
Joao Pedro Stédile: The effort that we are making with this coordination, instead of any other action by the parties and unions, is to try to gather all the popular forces in the world so that we can promote common struggles against the common enemy of all of us—the imperialists. That is the main reason to look for new forms of international organisation that promote struggles and try to unite the different types of organisations in our countries. In this first Assembly, because of the extent of conflict in Venezuela, which is now the epicenter of the world class struggle, at least in the West, where imperialism seeks by any means to overthrow Venezuela, the number one task, the absolute priority of all of us, is to leave here with an agenda of actions, of denunciation, so that we can develop movements in solidarity with Venezuela and against imperialism in each of the countries represented here.
CA: I am the devil’s advocate: whenever this type of meeting is held, it is proposed to return to the countries and coordinate actions, and then, for some reason or because of the need to respond to the internal situation in each country, these things are not carried out and the documents and resolutions are packed away. Why do you think that this time it is going to happen or it should happen?
JPS: That is our self-critical reflection: we have to get out of paperwork and try to promote more actions. I believe that we should promote concrete struggles and actions because the popular forces that are here are accustomed to processes of popular organisation in their countries. The people attending this meeting are involved in real processes of struggle in their countries. So, we are confident that when they return to their countries they will put the issue of Venezuela, the issue of internationalism, permanently on their agenda in the national struggles they are already waging.
CA: Venezuela is a turning point today in the anti-imperialist struggle. What do you think is the most valid or most effective way of expressing solidarity with Venezuela on the continent?
JPS: It is true that there is tremendous confusion and that is why Venezuela is a key point, because even some left-wing sectors of Latin America and Europe allow themselves to be influenced by what the capitalist press says. We had invited several European organisations but they refused to come to Venezuela because they claim Venezuela is not a democracy. That is strange. Venezuela is a country that has held 25 elections in 20 years, where the private press is the majority, where the opposition marches every day it wishes; how can we then say that there is no democracy in that country? So, those ideas of the capitalist classes have also influenced sections of the left, especially the most institutional sections, who are moved only by electoral logic, who if they are in an election year believe that it is not very convenient to be seen as being close to Venezuelans because they are radical. It is very similar to what happened in the past, when they isolated themselves from Cuba. But Cuba continues to not only exist, after 60 years of resistance, but is also thriving today with its happy, educated people.
So Venezuela is very important because it is the battle of this century. If the empire succeeds in overthrowing Venezuela, that means that it will have more forces to overthrow Cuba, Nicaragua, and all the processes that propose changes; not only that, even the institutional left that only thinks of elections will have difficulties in winning elections if Venezuela suffers defeat. So, not just for the people’s struggles taking place all over the globe, but even for the institutional struggle, it is very important to defend Venezuela and transform it into a trench of resistance and make it the grave of the Trump government.
CA: In your speeches and statements you tend to criticise the errors of the neo-liberal governments, but in several countries, there is a tendency to not face up to the imperialist offensive and compromise like was done in the past by social democracy. How do you see that, is that valid or do we have need to clearly state the need to advance along the path to socialism?
JPS: Our assessment is that there is a profound crisis of the capitalist mode of production and solution that they are seeking to their problem of accumulation of capital is to launch an offensive to seize control of resources, be it oil, mining, water or even biodiversity, and simultaneously increase the rate of exploitation of the working class by rolling back the gains that have been made by the people during the immediate decades after World War II. In ideological terms, what capital is promoting is the return of the extreme right, as happened in the crisis of the 1930s when it resorted to fascist and Nazi ideology.
The advantage we now have is that the fascists cannot repeat what they did in the 1930s as there is no mass movement of the working class today which can be re-directed along fascist and Nazi lines, and that gives us some security. But, on the other hand, since they don’t have the masses, they wage an ideological struggle and use all the weapons they have, television, internet, networks, fake news, to defeat us with their ideology.
The capitalists have themselves defeated social democracy. In Latin America, Europe and the whole world, social democracy was a means of humanising capital, but capital no longer wants to be human. Capital, in order to recover from its present crisis, has to be the devil and go to the extremes, whether in terms of manipulation of the State or of super-exploitation of nature and human labour, without bothering about the consequences.
Therefore, it would be a mistake for socialists today to think that in order to win elections we have to become like social democrats of the 1950s-60s. Now we need to return to grassroots work, to engage in ideological struggle, to recover our social base which is the working class that has been uprooted, is in a precarious condition, and faces numerous challenges. But we have to reorganise it under forms that are not just unions and the party as we have been used to, but are also new forms, new movements; we need to build a grassroot movement that builds up new forms of participatory democracy, because winning elections alone is not enough, as has been proven in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. Of course it is important to win elections, but we must have powerful grassroots forces and movements to achieve structural changes in the economy and in the political system.
CA: There is a phenomenon in Europe that is attracting attention and that is the yellow vests. Strangely enough, this wave comes from Europe and not from Latin America as one might imagine, but one can see elements of an anti-system approach there. Do you think that this phenomenon could help you in building up the new forms of struggle that must be applied to fighting the empire?
JPS: Without a doubt. We are very interested in the movements that are developing in Europe and the processes that led to their development, and we are going to try to send our people to spend some time there and learn from them the forms they have adopted. It caught our attention because the people participating in the yellow vest movement are part of the working class, it is not a movement of the petty bourgeoisie or disillusioned students as it was once the case in Europe with camps in public squares. We perceive that initiatives are being promoted there by the precarious working class outside the traditional unions and the parties, who when they realised that capitalism is no longer solving their daily problems adopted this form of struggle that seems very interesting to us.
However, it is not question of copying a form and applying it to every country, the significance of it is that the working class in France are being very creative and they have discovered a form that is very suitable to the French reality. That’s what we have to look for in Brazil, in Argentina and in each of our countries. In other words, we need to promote a debate in grassroots movements to look for new forms of struggle that will effectively fight the onslaught of capital and cause damage to it, because just with demonstrations, slogans and rallies, we are not being able to stop capital. The yellow vests of France have caused difficulties for capital because they are blocking the roads and so blocking the movement of trucks carrying goods. I congratulate the comrades and I hope that the French left will learn from them and get involved in the movement and also learn how to build links with the disorganised masses.
CA: How is the MST approaching the struggle at this moment of time in Brazil, where Lula is still in prison, and where even though the government is facing difficulties, but it has been able to force the working class to retreat and withdraw several gains and rights won by the workers in the past?
JPS: The MST is now in a very complex situation. We need to redouble our work and our efforts. Our movement has a peasant base, it developed its experience of class struggle by organising people in the countryside against the landlords and agricultural capital, which are the big transnationals. It is there that we were formed, we became politicised and we understood that Agrarian Reform does not mean only ownership of land for those who work on the land, which was dominant understanding of the Zapatista ideas during the 20th century, but that now Agrarian Reform also means that it primarily a struggle against international capital and its transgenic and agro-toxic technology. It was that struggle that politicised us to understand the limitations of the classic peasant movements.
After the defeats suffered by us because of Lula’s imprisonment and now with Bolsonaro’s victory, we now face new challenges that require that we advance beyond the struggle for Agrarian Reform and build a broad political struggle. At the same time, we also need to consolidate our movement for Agrarian Reform. But in this, the MST needs to proceed more carefully because the right wing is preparing traps for us, and we fall in them, they will seek to defeat us. Therefore, we need to act with much more wisdom in the countryside, and we will need to mobilise people on a much larger scale to protect ourselves from the repression that the right-wing is preparing to launch to defeat us. So far, this offensive is being launched by the militias funded by big capital, we have not yet faced repression from the State, from the government of Bolsonaro, but we do not doubt that this is precisely what they desire.
In political terms, what we need to do is to go to the cities and with our militancy and experience, develop a movement that solidly supports the peasantry in the countryside. We have already made our plans and begun their implementation, and for that, we have created in Brazil a broad united front of popular movements called the Popular Brazil Front. To strengthen the grassroots movement, we are developing new forms, one of which is what we call the People’s Congress. It is a pompous-sounding name, but it an attempt to challenge the existing political structure. We are going from house to house to talk with the people about their problems, and to motivate them to build and participate in a popular assembly in their neighbourhood, parish, work place. Once these assemblies are held and they are able to attract a significant number of people to participate in them, we then plan to organise municipal assemblies, and then provincial assemblies, to ultimately culminate in the organising of a National People’s Congress sometime next year or the end of this year. Through the organising of these asssemblies, we hope to motivate the people to participate in politics. We also seeking to discover new means of communication with the people including how to better use the internet networks and how to expand the distribution of our newspaper among the people, and how to use the cultural medium such as music and theatre more effectively to reach out to the people as these are forms that are more effective in reaching out to the people rather than political discourses to which no one listens today. We have to use other forms of mass pedagogies to interact with the people in Brazil and politicise them, develop new creative forms, like the working people are doing in France about which I talked earlier.
CA: Will Lula and his freedom continue to be on the agenda of the MST?
JPS: That’s another big issue in politics in Brazil today. Lula’s freedom is at the center of the class struggle in Brazil. There is no successor to Lula because popular leadership is chosen not by the parties but by the people, which is why it is called popular leadership, and Lula is the popular leader of Brazil.
It is a fundamental task for the class struggle that we succeed in liberating Lula so that he becomes the principal spokesman, he is the one who has the capacity to help mobilise the masses against the system and the project of the extreme right. That’s why the extreme right is terrified and prevents him from even speaking, giving interviews, something that goes against the Constitution. Any narco-trafficker in Brazil speaks on national television, but Lula cannot give an interview even to a written newspaper.
So, we are fighting for Lula’s freedom, which is going to depend on two important factors. One is international solidarity, which is why I take this opportunity through this interview with you to ask everyone to help us. The second factor is the national mobilisation that we are developing in Brazil, in which we are linking up the campaign for freeing Lula to the concrete struggle against neo-liberal policies. We want people to realise that if they want to defend the rights they have won in the past, which the government is seeking to eliminate today, they will have to fight against the policies of neoliberal government in power in Brazil today.
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