Peasant Movements in Latin America

By Petras, James | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Peasant Movements in Latin America


Petras, James, Canadian Dimension


AT THE END OF THE SEVENTIES, many experts argued that peasant movements were an anachronistic, declining force for social transformation. These observers failed to see or understand the emergence of a new generation of modern peasant leaders based on mass organizations, capable of compensating for demographic changes through greater organization and through coalition building with urban-poor neighborhood organizations and trade unions. Peasant organizations have more than made up for quantitative losses in relative population with qualitative gains in organization, leadership, strategies and tactics.

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The Significance of the Rural Struggle

Monographs, testimonials, field research and visual accounts provide a rich and extensive mosaic of mass peasant activity over the past two decades, providing irrefutable evidence of the vibrant and dynamic role that rural movements still play throughout most of Latin America in different moments in time.

Almost all of the major peasant movements in Latin America engage in local, national and even international struggles and campaigns. In many cases, local struggles over immediate grievances like human-rights violations became the basis for national mobilizations and international solidarity campaigns. As well, most of the movements have built "local" bases of political hegemony as a springboard to national power and challenges for state power, with the cases of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and Bolivia's cocaleros (coca farmers) being illustrative. And, while regaining their ethnic or Indian/African-American rights and autonomy are central to many peasant movements, they are strongly linked to class interests and horizontal alliances with other exploited classes.

In times of severe political repression or political disillusionment, peasant movements may shift their agendas to local demands, specific projects and defensive activities. In periods of expanding membership and victorious struggles, peasant movements tend to raise national issues and challenge the authority of the central political powers.

Most of the peasant movements directly engage in one or another form of political action. They have played a leading role in the fight against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA) in Brazil, Central America (especially Guatemala), Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico. Peasant movements have led the fight against genetically modified and chemically based agriculture promoted by Monsanto in favour of ecologically sound cultivation. Peasant movements have led the struggle against fumigation of food crops and in defense of coca farming--an important source of family income, with a multiplier effect throughout the economy. Peasant leaders demand that Washington fight drugs by prosecuting its elite allies, who process and traffic, and the U.S. banks, which "wash" illegal drug profits. Peasant movements have been part of national coalitions against privatization legislation, U.S. military bases and payment of the illegal foreign debt. Direct action by peasant movements have delayed or blocked "austerity" programs promoted by the IMF. Equally important, peasant movements have initiated movements that have "detonated" larger urban activities--like the uprising in Bolivia in October, 2003; that of the Zapatistas in January, 1994; the seizure of Ecuador's Congress in 2000; and Brazil's land-occupation movements of the new millennium.

Direct Action or Electoral Politics?

Over the past 25 years, direct-action methods have been far more effective and positive than electoral strategies in securing short- and medium-term peasant goals, regardless of the identity of the electoral party. In Ecuador, for example, the CONAIE was able through direct action to overthrow two corrupt neoliberal presidents, secure positive social reforms and strengthen its mass support in civil society. …

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