Learning from Latin America's Rural Poor

Article excerpt

As I was preparing to travel to Brazil for a peasant conference, several friends dropped by the house. Former activists in the 1960s and 1970s who had grown disillusioned with what they called "Third Worldist Politics," they spoke of revolutions which had failed or worse-those that had succeeded and turned sour, "authoritarian Stalinism with a crooked nose." One acquaintance who was still active asked me why I was going to Latin America when there were severe problems in the United States. As he ran down the litany of declining wages, lack of medical coverage, and the dissolution of welfare for the poor, I questioned the purpose of my trip. Was this my escape from a frustrating sense of political impotence in the United States? Wasn't it more important to stay put and work out an alternative to the free market agenda of Clinton-Gingrich?

After ten days of discussions and exchanges with peasant leaders from practically all the countries in Latin America, however, I was able to see a very profound linkage between what was happening in the countryside in Latin America and our political dilemmas in the U.S. Despite the dissimilarities between the poor here and there (as my friends said, "we're talking about the working poor in advanced computerized capitalism with a globalized face, not peasant Indians in the jungles of Chiapas"), some of the conditions are similar. Globalized capitalism in the era of NAFTA has not only decimated industries in working towns across the U.S., but, to take just one example, it has left 85 percent of the rural Mexican labor force in poverty. Yet, the hopelessness, passivity, crime, drugs and delinquency often associated with poverty in the U.S. is in flagrant contrast to the confidence, militancy, and solidarity I witnessed among the poorest of the poor peasants in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and elsewhere. Why was it that the rural poor in Latin America, who were living under deteriorating socio-economic conditions and more repressive political conditions, were organizing for successful struggles, while the declining middle class and marginalized ghetto residents in the U.S. were atomized and suffering in silence?

Several key issues emerged. For one, in Latin America peasants are not segregated from each other into single-issue organizations. Strikingly, many of the peasant movements combine gender/ethnic and class politics, unifying socioeconomic and cultural struggles rather than fragmenting "cultural issues" from "economic issues." At the recent Second Latin American Congress of Rural Organizations (Congreso Latinoamericano de Organizaciones del Campo, CLOC), over 40 percent of the delegates were peasant women, mostly in their twenties to early thirties. This was an extraordinary change: at the previous CLOC meeting three years earlier less than 10 percent of the delegates were women. But this change was not merely "symbolic"; the program was designed by mutual agreement of both the men and women to "treat the issue of gender in a transversal manner." What this meant was that every workshop was instructed to discuss the specific gender impacts of the topics under discussion, from occupation movements in Brazil to the repression of coca farmers in Bolivia. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of the women present rejected the idea of "classless feminism" in favor of a perspective that linked gender equality with class struggle. While the women supported women's caucuses and autonomous meetings, they also were strongly committed to building class-based peasant organizations with their companeros.

The new militancy of peasant women emerges in many local struggles. One can see the link between gender and class struggle in the story of this female member of the Cochabamba peasant movement, a movement largely of coca farmers struggling against the US-directed eradication campaign: "This year they have already assassinated several of our members and one of our leaders. We have resisted and will continue to resist. …