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The Peasantry and the State in Latin America
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In the first setion of the paper we will discuss the relation between the peasantry and the state in Latin America, a relationship which has been complex and changing.

The role of the state with regard to the peasantry is deeply influenced by the type of production unit which is dominant and its relation to the market. The relationship between the state and the latifundio, small holders, tenant farmers, sharecroppers and migratory is significantly different from the role of the state and the plantation system with its seasonal but ’stationary’ wage labor force. In the latter half of the 20th century, the rise of a quasi-industrial bourgeoisie, sharing power with labor and sectors of the agricultural elite, redefined the relation of the state: promoting import substitution industrialization financed by the export earnings of the agro-export sector. The role of the peasantry within this scheme of “subordination of agriculture to fuel industrialization” is to supply cheap labor to the cities and low cost food for the urban labor force without commensurate reforms.

With the advent of neo-liberalism during the latter part of the 20th century saw a new turn in the relationship between the state and the peasantry. Under neo-liberal doctrine a process of reversal of previous reforms is accompanied by massive displacement of small and medium rural producers and rural workers at a time of declining urban-industrial employment engenders a new set of conflicts and confrontations between the peasantry and the state.

The second section of the essay will explore the relationship between the state and the peasantry along three dimensions: repression, displacement and revolution. The general repressive role of the state will be contextualized to identify its particular forms and content.

The displacement of the peasantry from the land, from the agricultural sector and increasingly across national boundaries is not simply an “individual choice” but a forced system imperative driven by state policy, defined by its dominant classes.

The long-term, large-scale direct and indirect involvement of the state in the exploitation, repression and displacement of the peasantry has engendered rebellions, reforms and revolutions in which the peasants have been major protagonists. In colonial Peru, Haiti and Mexico the enslaved, indentured and en-serfed rural labor force challenged colonial state power during the 18th and early 19th century. In the 20th century, social revolutions in Mexico (1910), Bolivia (1951), Cuba (1959), Nicaragua (1979), the peasants played a major role in overthrowing the state. In other contexts, peasants and landless workers were major actors in stimulating comprehensive agrarian reforms, such as in Chile (1965-73), Peru (1958-74), El Salvador (1980-85), Ecuador (during the late 1960’s to 1970’s) and Brazil (1962-64).

Today, beginning in the mid-1980’s to the present, peasants and rural landless workers’ movements and rural based guerrilla movements are in the center of the struggle against neo-liberalism and its imperial backers.

The peasant based reforms and revolutions have been vulnerable to reversals, peasants have suffered harsh repression and forced to massively migrate from their communities as the result of changes in the configuration of state power.

The third section of the paper will examine the power and limitations of peasant movements in their struggle with the state. The key issues raised by the discussion will be how the state affected the peasantry and the degree to which the state has been a friend or enemy at different times and different countries over the last half century.

The State and Agricultural Systems

The state is essential to the operation of markets and the defense or transformation of social relations of production. In each specific agricultural system the state is instrumental in the foundation, extension, reproduction and transformation of agricultural systems, benefitting some classes — usually the landowners — and prejudicing other classes. The theoretical point is that the market is inexorably linked to an ‘activist state’, whether the principal agricultural unit is the latifundio or hacienda, the plantation, family farms, peasant production or a combination of these productive systems.

The origins of the earliest form, the hacienda or latifundio, was based on forced seizure of land by the colonial state, the coerced conscription of small producers or importation of slaves and the development of markets and transport infrastructure to facilitate exports. Patrimonialist state, a mercantilist economy and the latifundio/hacienda system served to fuel the European and later U.S. accumulation process, which in turn catalyzed 19th century modern industrial imperialism. The keystone of the whole system was the availability and exploitation of labor via state coercion id labor of native peoples or African slaves. Exploitation was ‘extensive’ and to a lesser degree ‘intensive’ — an extended work day predominated over technological change. Given the abundance of lands over people and the terribly exploitative conditions of labor, the only manner by which the latifundio could operate and expand (and with it the whole export-mercantilist system) was through a system of overwhelming force and total control. The internal structure of the latifundio was based on a closed social system in which all of the rural labor force interactions took place within the latifundio and with the ‘patron’, thus isolating them from the multiplicity of commercial, financial and manufacturing activities which might foster discontent, flight or rebellion. To retain rural labor within this ‘paternalistic’ closed social system violent coercion was routinized, indiscipline was arbitrarily punished and public protest was savagely repressed with exemplary violence. The impressionistic view of ‘reciprocal relations’ and ‘mutual obligations’ was based on the operation of this system of total control within a closed social system enforced by violent coercion. Everyday appearances were maintained by the threat and occasional reality of a machete beheading.

Two theoretical points need to be understood. First, the existence of coerced labor was not part of the organic evolution typical of ‘feudal systems’. Rather, the local and world market opportunities and the diverse and growing economic activities encouraged large landowners to impose coercion and total control to maximize their exports and trade, while securing their labor supply where the land/people ratio was unfavorable.


Secondly, the “feudal” or “paternal” or “reciprocal relations” were a facade for forced/control labor, given the early desire of most laborers to secure their independence and own plot of land, as occurred by escaped slaves in Brazil and Indians in the Andean and Central American countries.

The plantation system was a ‘rationalization’ and ‘transformation’ of the latifundio based agricultural system. In no case were these two systems ever in ‘contradiction’, neither in violent civil wars nor in bitter and prolonged political conflict. The plantation system functioned with slave, indentured and wage labor. In all these systems, its monopoly over state violence and land limited the possibilities of an independent peasant economy. The peasant economy served as a huge reserve army of labor, subsisting on tiny plots of land adjoining the larger productive units, providing for what might be called by neo-liberal ideologues “flexible production”. Employed during planting and harvesting they subsisted on their own plots in the “dead season” saving their landlords the cost of their social reproduction. Nevertheless, the small holdings served as a meeting ground for organization and occasional large-scale land seizures and protests — the social advantages to the landowners had a political price.

Theoretically the transition from coerced labor didn’t transit either to wage labor or a peasant economy, but rather to peasant-wage laborers, who revolted as laborers and ‘revindicated’ the land as peasants. The state’s role was to facilitate land use for specialized production in export commodities and, given the precariousness of the commodities produced, — their harvest time was limited — apply the maximum force necessary to ensure that labor produced “just in time”. Given the fact that the plantations were largely foreign owned — particularly by investors from the imperial country — the state operated as a “compradore” institution:its economic activities were mainly geared toward facilitating the entry and exit of capital and commodities and policing the worker-peasants.

The plantation system was so successful that it spread from one empire to another, leading to overproduction and crisis. The world economic crisis of the 1930’s led to a profound disintegration of export markets and popular rebellions as hunger stalked the land. The crisis of the liberal agro-export system led to the emergence of a new ‘import-substitution’ model, which harnessed agro-exports to local industrial production, without changing the agricultural elites’ domination over the peasantry and the rural labor force. In effect, the ascendancy of the urban bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie involved a trade-off in which the agro-export classes accepted their subordination in exchange for continued control over the rural sector. Agrarian reform — a supposedly “democratic demand” of the “progressive bourgeoisie — was excluded from the social pact between the urban bourgeoisie and the agrarian oligarchy.

The import substitution model without agrarian reform led to the first wave of rural to urban migrants, beginning in the late 1930’s and 1940’s and accelerated from the 1950’s forward.

The federal state channeled resources into industry, allocated foreign exchange earned by the primary sector to the importation of capital and intermediary goods for the burgeoning consumer goods industries. At the regional or state and local level, the landlords retained control over state power to pass the “costs” of their subordination onto the peasantry.While formally the Marxist parties spoke of a worker-peasant alliance in fact they were aligned with or seeking alliances with the so-called “national” bourgeoisie or engaged in strictly “workerist” struggles and organizing.

The emergence of peasant based movements owed little to the urban based left and populist parties, at least their mainstream leaders and organizations (some local organizations and individuals excepted).

During the 1930’s significant peasant based mass movements surged in Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Rural workers, particularly sugar workers in modern plantations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico engaged in class warfare. In each instance, extremely violent and repressive measures were taken to destroy the rural rebellions, or as in the exceptional case of Mexico, President Cardenas deepened and extended the agrarian reform to hundreds of thousands of families. In El Salvador the peasant uprising was crushed and 30,000 were killed. In Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Cuba the U.S. occupation army and its newly anointed tyrant-presidents Somoza, Trujillo and Batista slaughtered thousands, decimating the burgeoning rural peasant and workers’ movements. In Brazil and Chile, respectively, the Vargas regime defeated Prestes’ rural based guerrilla army, while pursuing national industrialization, while in Chile the Popular Front of Radicals, Socialists and Communists aroused and then abandoned the peasant struggle and demands for agrarian reform in an implicit gentleman’s pact with the traditional oligarchy.

In its different phases of capitalist modernization, in the transition from haciendas to plantations from agro-export based to import substitution industrialization, the state played a crucial role in promoting, financing and protecting the dominant ‘modernizing’ classes from the threat of peasant and rural worker movements and coercing the rural labor force to bear the costs of each ‘transition’. This proposition is evident today in the transition to neo-liberal export economies. Among the numerous classes prejudiced by the application of neo-liberal measures in Latin America, the peasantry and rural workers are the most adversely affected.

The reality of today’s world economy has little to do with “free markets”, even less with a “globalized” world, in any of its permutations. The world today is divided into three competing and cooperating empires, headed by the U.S. and including the European Union and Japan. The nature of these empires is essentially neo-mercantilist, though their interests are cloaked in the rhetoric of “neo-liberalism” or “free market” economies.

Neo-mercantilism puts the imperial state in the center of economic activity — much to the disadvantage of rural producers in Latin America, particularly the peasants and rural workers. The essence of neo-mercantilism is imperial state protection of domestic capitalists who are not competitive and the forced opening of markets in the Third World under conditions that prejudice the other imperial competitors. Among the most protected and state subsidized sectors stands agriculture. Imperial policy makers spend tens of billions of dollars, Euros and yen directly and indirectly subsidizing producers and exporters, while establishing a variety of protective measures, from explicit quotas on agro-imports to so-called “health concerns” to curtail or exclude imports from competitors and Third World countries.


Peasant and rural laborers have been devastated by the neo-mercantilist system. First of all, the subsidies allow agro-exporters to sell cheaper, via subsidized electricity, water, extension programs, etc., than peasant and farm producers in the Third World, thus driving millions of peasants bankrupt. Cheap food imports supposedly produced by more “efficient” (subsidized) U.S. farmers, have driven over two million Mexican and Brazilian peasants off their farms in the 1990’s. While the U.S. and the EU heavily subsidize their food and grain exporters, the IMF and World Bank demand budget cuts and free trade from Latin American countries leading to precipitous declines in budget funding for agriculture and the flooding of domestic markets with cheap, subsidize imports.

The state imposed overt and covert quotas on farm imports by the EU and the US undermines potential agro-exporters who, in turn, cut back on the use of rural workers, increasing the number of rural destitute.

The non-reciprocal nature of trading rules agreed to by the regimes in Latin America reveals their ‘colonized’ nature. The colonized states play a crucial role in raising the gate for foreign imports, cutting credit and investment funding in the rural sector (except for a few specialized sectors that complement EU and US agriculture). In addition to ‘draining resources from the countryside’ to meet foreign debt obligations to EU and US bankers, the colonized state is engaged in several other crucial roles:policing the displaced peasants and destitute rural workers, denationalizing landownership and privatizing specific sectors.

Policing certainly involves repression, but that has been a constant in the history of state-peasant-landlord relations, punctured by occasional shifts in state-power to pro-peasant regimes. The context, content and purpose of state policing has changed with the dominant form of rural production. State policing under the latifundio system was essentially local, supplemented by state power in case of emergency widespread rebellion. The purpose was to maintain the “closed social system” of the latifundio, in which tenants and laborers only interacted with the patron, minimizing external communications. The only exception being military conscription of peasants, who not infrequently because of their contacts with the urban centers became carriers of dissident views. In a word, policing under the latifundio system was directed to immobilizing the peasantry and confining them to a closed social system.

With the advent of the plantation system, the state’s role was to provide for a certain flexibility of movement, but to try to limit contact between rural and urban labor, as well as to insure a docile stable peasantry to provide subsistence farming during the “dead season”. While “local policing” continued, the great concentration of landless laborers, their greater accessibility to ‘outside’ ideas and organization and the capacity for concerted large-scale action led to greater degree of ‘national state military intervention’. The local military officials, judges and prosecutors were politically and socially entwined with the plantation owners and frequently were used to violently intervene in employer-worker disputes. The crucial strategic weakness of the plantation owners was the vulnerability of their crops during harvest season — a few days’ strike could lead to the decline or destruction of the harvest. This fact was understood by rural organizers of plantation workers. Given this strategic asset of the workers, the plantation owners encouraged massive violent repression, ‘exemplary’, ‘preventive’ violence to preempt any action at harvest time. Plantation markets were largely international, U.S. or European, and as tropical production sites multiplied and competition intensified, so did working conditions deteriorated and new lands were expropriated from untitled local producers. Market dynamics led to intensified conflict between expanding plantation owners and peasants, as well as between the former and plantation workers. In this context the state played a crucial role. First in displacing de facto peasant squatters using the judicial device of “untitled land” and secondarily in pushing peasants onto indigenous people’s reserves, thus opening further lands for extensive agriculture in the future. The state also legislated labor legislation outlawing the right to strike during harvest and subsequently “normalizing” collective bargaining between ‘domesticated’ rural worker leaders and plantation owners.

The crisis of the 1930’s dealt a powerful blow to plantation agriculture, as their exports collapsed and prices hit bottom. Foreign owners sold out to local elites, some sub-contracted to local farmers, others abandoned their lands in part to squatters. All faced insurgent rural uprisings.Many diversified their investments to urban real estate, finance and a few in newly protected ‘import substitution’ industries. The state played a crucial role in the bloody suppression of rural uprisings but equally important facilitated the transition to new forms of agricultural production and urban sites. The crisis and breakdown of the liberal agro-export sector had a major impact on the peasantry and rural workers.

Rebellion, Revolts and Revolution

From the Spanish and Portuguese conquest and the subsequent military incursions by British, French and U.S. forces, the rural labor force has been the mainspring of popular rebellions, revolts and revolutions.

While the forms of popular rebellions varied and on the surface took on the appearance of “archaic” or “millenarian” movements by “primitive rebels”, the realities are much more complex, both in substance and motivation.

The early rebellions, symbolized by the uprisings led by Tupac Amaru, were attempts to oust the Spanish colonial rulers and restore elements of pre-Colombian society. The key element here is not the inviability of the latter, but the modern thrust of a mass popular based rural uprising against imperial power. One cannot simply juxtapose upon this rebellion, the archaic restorationist symbolism, since a peasant rebellion free of the constraints of the encomienda system has the possibility of constructing a peasant based subsistence agricultural system.

The clearest and most advanced example of the inherent modernist tendencies among the enslaved rural labor force is found in the Haitian Revolution. The anti-slavery revolution was also anti-colonial and, at least among the masses, strongly influenced by egalitarian land redistribution sentiments. The subsequent wars of independence in Latin America operated on two levels: struggles by merchants and landlords to secure state power (independence), to liberalize the economy, expand trade and appropriate native lands, and on a different plane, struggles by slaves, peons and small holders to secure access to land and free themselves from the coercive and exploitative social relations of production.

The post-independence 19th and early 20th century is a period of primitive repression and modern rebellion. By that I mean the dominant rural oligarchies engaged in a process of ‘primitive accumulation’ seizing native communal land and abolishing any protective legislation and constraints on the exploitation of rural labor and particularly the indigenous peoples.


The popular rebellions were modern, not in the ideological or programmatic sense, but through their collective attacks on the oligarchy’s monopoly of landownership, state power, trade, credit, etc. The reclaiming of territory and defense of pre-existing native claims was a dress rehearsal of modern claims for self-determination. The ‘local’ or decentralized forms of rebellion were characteristic of all early modern urban and rural revolts in the 19th century. The key point here is that in substance the peasant-peon revolts were blows against the liberal export model of agricultural development linked to world markets as opposed to production and trade of foodstuffs for local markets.

The savage repression that accompanied the seizure of land and control of post-slavery labor, was met by mass resistance in Mexico and elsewhere.The successful repression of these mass collective efforts had as its aftermath the fragmentation and dispersal of the expelled peasantry and the formation of bands who were later dubbed “primitive rebels” — a label which obscures much more than it reveals about the sequencing of collective action.

While there is no question that the armies of the oligarchical government were formed by peasant and peon conscripts, and that there were varying lapses of time between revolts and rebellions, nevertheless there were oral traditions that transmitted tales and legends of earlier periods of emancipatory struggle between generations, throughout the region.

The modernist nature of rural revolts is confirmed by the Mexican peasant revolution of 1910. Mexico had gone furthest in terms of integration in world markets, penetration by foreign capital and in the formation and dissemination of liberal ideology — los cientificos cultivated by the Profiriato. The brutal and savage forms of torture and labor control — graphically portrayed in the novels of B. Traven — were not part of an archaic dynastic order, but the means of maximizing profits for modern capitalists in Europe, North America and Mexico City.

The Mexican revolution — at least among its popular sectors — then is not merely a land reform movement but anti-imperial — the first major revolution against the burgeoning U.S. empire.

The trajectory of the Mexican revolution highlights the tremendous revolutionary potentialities of the peasantry and their strategic weakness — particularly in relation to the question of state power.

While the peasantry formed the backbone of all the revolutionary armies, its basic economic interests found expression in only a few regional armies — namely the Zapatistas. While the peasant armies were successful in overthrowing established power, they constantly resorted to “pressuring” the next urban based political regime to implement political pacts. The state became a point of “mediating” competing bourgeois and peasant demands, not a strategic resource to be reconfigured and transformed in the service of a political-economy reflecting a new peasant based economy. At the peak of peasant revolutionary mobilization, the bourgeois state responded by concessions, radical legislation and promises. When the bourgeois social forces and military regrouped and peasant mobilization weakened, the state reverted back toward reversing reforms or failing to implement them.

The phenomenon of mass collective peasant movements mobilizing against the state, displacing incumbent office holders and securing concessions, via pressure on the state without changing the class configuration of the state has been characteristic of peasant movements throughout the 20th century.Nevertheless, the nature, leadership and demands of rural based movements has changed over time.

Peasant Revolts and Socialist Revolutions: the 1930’s

In the best of cases, peasant based revolutions have been able to secure extensive sectoral reforms — namely land re-distribution. In the case of Mexico, agrarian reform was a sporadic and prolonged process that began in the early teens and reached its high point during the 1930’s. In Bolivia, the 1952 revolution of miners and peasants led to a sweeping agrarian reform that expropriated most large estates. In Cuba the victory of the 26th of July movement led by Fidel Castro confiscated most of the U.S. and Cuban owned plantations and collectivized the land or distributed it to small holders. In Peru in the 1960’s, Chile in the 1966-73 period, and Nicaragua between 1979-86, substantive land distribution took place, in part due to the mass peasant mobilizations and direct action.

However, with the exception of the Cuban Revolution, these peasant and landless worker advances suffered severe setbacks over the medium and long run. The key problem was the relation of the peasant movements to the state. In practically all the revolutions, agrarian reforms listed amove were reversible. In Mexico, Bolivia and Peru a prolonged process of state disinvestment in the reform sector culminated in legislation providing incentives to agro-export monopolies , alienating community lands (the ejido in Mexico) and stimulating cheap (subsidized) imported foodstuffs.

The politics of alliances in which the peasantry was subordinated to urban petit-bourgeois and bourgeois forces secured the initial redistributive reforms and state assistance. Subsequently, however, the peasant movements fragmented between ‘official’ and ‘oppositional movements’ in which the former became a transmission belt for state policy. The inability of the peasant movement to transcend its sectoral ‘economistic’ consciousness confined it to militant “pressure group politics” in which other urban classes took hold of the reins of power, using the peasant movement as a battering ram to clear the way for a kind of capitalist “modernization”.

Only in the case of Cuba was the peasantry able to consolidate its position and prosper, largely due to the socialist nature of the urban leadership and its efforts to invest and develop the countryside as the “motor of development”.

The second factor leading to the decline of the agrarian reform movements is intimately related to the first: the lack of state investment in the infrastructure, credit, marketing, extension of services which are essential for the development of cooperatives or individual land reform beneficiaries. The “maximum act” of the state was the awarding of land titles in ostentatious ceremonies. The promises of future investments never materializes or are selectively distributed as part of an electoral-patronage system. In the case of Nicaragua, the U.S.-Contra war destroyed many of the state sponsored agrarian reform support services, while forcing the Sandinista regime to reallocate budgetary funds from agricultural development to military defense. Lacking credit, the beneficiaries were hard pressed to finance capital investments; lacking roads and transport, they could not market at a profit. The high costs of private credit and transport ruined many beneficiary households. The lack of state investments in irrigation and the state sanctioned usurpation of water rights by newly privatized classes undermined growth. With the advent of neo-liberalism, the elimination of price supports and subsidiaries, together with the importation of cheap foodstuffs delivered the coup de grace to the descendants of the land reform beneficiaries.


Over time, the state turned increasingly to stimulating the reconcentration of land and the promotion of agro-export sectors. In northern Mexico, the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia, in Peru, and Nicaragua and especially in Chile, land reforms were reversed, old and new owners recovered the land with the support of counter-revolutionary or counter-reform regimes. This process of ‘reconcentration’ and reversal was facilitated by the cooption of peasant leaders and the incorporation of the bureaucratized peasant organization as a subordinate component of the party-state — as was the case in Mexico with the PRI and Bolivia with the MNR.

The key theoretical point is that the revolutionary peasant movements (with the exception of Cuba)have been unable to seize state power and recreate society and economy in their own image — or at least in a manner that consolidates and expands their economy. Armed peasant revolts with revolutionary programs have seen their leaders succumb to the blandishments of urban elites or confine themselves to immediate reforms of “land titles”. In the case of Nicaragua, Chile and the Dominican Republic, armed U.S. intervention — not so covert and via Marines or mercenaries — as played a significant role in destroying pro-land reform regimes and installing corporate agriculture.

The principal vehicle for agrarian reform is peasant influence over the state; the principle weakness in sustaining and making the reform irreversible is consolidating state power. A revolutionary vision that takes account of the inter-links between agriculture and the commercial, financial and monetary system is essential. The only revolutionary success in consolidating the position of land reform beneficiaries was Cuba — which transformed the urban economy along with the agrarian reform. The question is whether the new and dynamic agrarian movements have learned the lessons of the past.

Contemporary Rural Movements and the State

By the end of the 20th century a new configuration of dynamic rural based movements took center stage in Latin America. These movements are found throughout Latin America, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and, to a lesser degree, in Peru, Chile and North Argentina. Peasant movements, frequently with a powerful indigenous component, have led the opposition to neo-liberalism.

The growth and radicalization of the major peasant and indigenous movements is intimately related to state policies. In the case of Mexico, the inauguration of NAFTA was the detonator for the launching of the Zapatista uprising. Likewise, the major Indian-peasant uprising and take-over of Quito, the capital of Ecuador in January 2000 and a year later was in part a response to the neo-liberal policies applied by the national government. In Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement has combined land occupations, and mass demonstrations to pressure the government to legalize and finance the redistribution of land. Similar tactics and movements have occurred in Paraguay: land redistribution direct action tactics are combined with confrontations with the state to legalize and finance credits and inputs. In Bolivia, Colombia and Peru the peasant movements have been in the forefront of the struggle to develop alternative remunerative crops (coca farming) in the face of the neo-liberal free market policies which have inundated local markets with cheap imports. The U.S. directed offensive against coca farmers has been spearheaded by the military and their paramilitary auxiliaries, with the active support and approval of Washington’s client regimes. The irony of course is that every client regime and its generals have been the major drug traffickers in the region, and leading U.S. and EU banks the major drug money launderers.

The contemporary peasant movements mentioned above differ substantially from the past. First, they are all independent of electoral parties and urban politicians. Second, their leaders are not part of a bureaucratic apparatus, but subject to debates in popular assemblies. Thirdly, they link sectoral struggles with national political issues. For example, the MST in Brazil calls for agrarian reform, nationalization of the banking system and an end of the free market policies. The same is true with CONAIE in Ecuador and other movements. Fourthly, most of the movements have developed regional (CLOC) and international ties (Via Campensina) and frequently participate in anti-globalization demonstrations. Fifthly, the peasant movements have been in the forefront in seeking urban allies and building strength in national parliaments. Finally, the new peasant movements have learned from each other, particularly in terms of tactical practices.

Because the neo-liberal economies depend on mining, forestry, agro-export enclaves, assembly plants and external markets and finance, they have weakened the economic position of the peasantry as a vital part of the economy: food can be imported and labor surpluses already flood urban labor markets. In response, the peasants have resorted to massive cutting of major highways, blocking the circulation of commodities essential for the neo-liberal economies, reducing foreign currency earnings available for debt payments and putting pressure on overseas lenders. Highway blockages by the peasants and rural workers are the functional equivalent of strikes by workers in strategic industries: they paralyze the flows inward and outward of commodities destined for production and trade.

The deepening of the economic crisis, particularly severe in rural Latin America, had had two major consequences, both particularly evident in Colombia. First is the radicalization and growth of the struggle — in particular the growth of guerrilla armies totaling over 20,000, mostly peasant fighters. Secondly is the multiplication of agrarian producers involved in the struggle. At the end of July 2001 in Colombia, farmers, peasants and rural workers joined together in a national strike blocking major highways in protest over debts, cheap imports, lack of credit, etc.Similarly, in Bolivia and Paraguay, alliances involving peasants, cocaleros, Indian communities, farmers and urban sectors (trade unions, civic groups) have cut highways and marched on the capital to confront the state.

The response of the state has been uniformly similar: the militarization of the countryside, the extended and deepening presence of U.S. military personnel and other federal policing agencies and negotiations designed to defuse but not resolve basic demands.

In Mexico the massive urban support for the Zapatistas led to ‘negotiations’ and an agreement which the government reneged on immediately after the pressure lessened. Similarly, in Ecuador, the government negotiated with CONAIE an agreement during the occupation of Quito and then, with the Indian withdrawal to the highlands, failed to comply with the parts of the agreement that came into conflict with IMF-World Bank agreements.


Given the growth of international human rights concerns, U.S. military missions have increasingly encouraged Latin armies to work with “paramilitary” forces to accomplish the village massacres and assassinations of dissident trade unionists, human rights workers, etc.The case of Colombia is a classical replay of Vietnam. Washington provided $1.3 billion in aid in 2000 and followed with over 600 million the following year and has over a thousand military advisers and subcontracted “private” mercenaries as part of Plan Colombia. The Plan is directed against suspected peasant sympathizers and the peasant guerrillas under the ploy of fighting the narcotics war. The use of paramilitary forces to repress civilians allows Washington and its military clients “credible denial” (in fact Washington even criticizes the “paras”) while channeling arms, funds and protection via the Colombia military command.

In the last two decades, particularly with the introduction of neo-liberal and neo-mercantilist policies, Latin American regimes have rejected any land reform. Unlike the 1960s where agrarian reform was perceived by some regimes as a contraceptive against revolution, in recent decades the state has sought to reverse what reforms occurred in the past 50 years.

Growing international linkages and markets, the recolonization of the state and a new Latin American “transnational capitalist” class are responsible for the roll-back of the agrarian reforms, growing impoverishment and the militarization of the countryside to contain the growing rural insurgency.

The roll-back in the countryside is part of a more general process of denationalization of industry and the privatization of public services and enterprises. Nonetheless, the development of opposition has been uneven with the urban industrial workers lagging behind the advanced detachments of the peasantry and rural workers.

The demands and achievements of the rural movements are extraordinary. In Colombia the FARC, the peasant based guerrillas, have secured a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland, where social forums are held and noted scholars, government officials and others debate the vital issues of land reform, alternative crops, etc. In addition, the guerrillas have major influence in over one-third of the municipalities of the countryside.

The notion of territoriality is central to all of the heavily indigenous based peasant movements. A key Zapatista demand is legal recognition of Indian autonomy and control over the natural resource in their regions.Likewise, the Ecuadorean CONAIE, the Ayamara and Quechua nations in Bolivia, the Maya nation in Guatemala have made demands for national cultural autonomy and economic control — demands resisted by the rulers of the client states and the U.S. and EU extractive enterprises.

The issue of national autonomy grows out of the growing frustration with the neo-liberal state, the constant military incursions and massacres, as well as from a growing reaffirmation of their national cultural identity.

The second major advance of the contemporary peasant movements is the anti-imperialist content of their struggles. The massive and continuing U.S. penetration of the state and reassertion of control over important natural resources is the mainspring of the resurgent anti-imperialism in the rural areas. For example, the aggressive U.S. anti-drug campaign involving the direct role of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the CIA and the Pentagon in destroying the livelihood of 40,000 coca farmers in Bolivia and over 100,000 in Colombia has certainly heightened anti-imperialist sentiment. The U.S. promotion and financing of sweeping fumigation programs that have adversely affected the health of broad swaths of peasants and destroyed traditional crops throughout southern Colombia has further stimulated anti-imperialist consciousness. Similarly, Clinton’s admission of “guilt” for complicity in the genocidal war on Guatemala, where over 250,000, mostly Mayan Indian peasants were slaughtered has certainly not endeared U.S. imperialism to the campesinos.

The intersection of self-determination, anti-imperialism and opposition to neo-liberalism is present in advanced detachments of the peasant movements.

Among the rank and file activist peasants, however, the focus is on immediate local demands, particularly land reform, credits and prices and, in some regions, the right to cultivate coca. The leaders retain support by their militancy and honesty in sustaining the struggle for immediate demands.

The governments of Mexico have tried to drive a wedge between the movements and their peasant constituency via “poverty” subsidies. In Brazil the Cardoso regime launched an Agrarian Bank to finance a commercial land purchasing scheme, in a failed attempt to draw peasant support from the MST.


The state has played and continues to play a major role in shaping the agricultural economy and the agrarian agenda, largely acting against the peasantry. In a few specific settings the state tactically supported a time bound and spatially limited agrarian reform program.

On the other hand, the peasantry has alternated between local struggles and confrontations with the state, at times playing a major role in overthrowing the incumbent governing class. The positive achievements in securing land redistribution is counter-balanced by the peasant movement’s incapacity to shape the permanent institutions of the state, resulting in the medium and long-term reversal of the reforms secured in periods of intense mobilization, a problem which persists to this day. For example, the MST which secured the expropriation of thousands of estates has recently been confronted by a sharp reduction of credits, which have bankrupted or threaten to bankrupt otherwise viable cooperatives.

The problem of breaking out of the constraints of sectoral based struggles is not an easy one for the contemporary peasant based movements. Today, unlike the past, many of the peasant leaders recognize that the financial system, the export regime and macro-economic policy directed by the state are major obstacles to peasant-based development. Yet the consummation of durable and consequential alliances is elusive. In most countries, the decline of urban based industrial unions — based on the growth of precarious and informal labor — has weakened their capacity for collective action on anything but wage demands. In some cases, like Argentina, Chile and Brazil (not to speak of the corrupt corporate unions of Mexico), the official trade union confederations are controlled by right-wing corrupt bureaucrats associated with neo-liberal regimes (CGT in Argentina, Forza sindical in Brazil) or immobilized officials (the CUT in Brazil, Colombia and Chile) who, while criticizing “neo-liberalism”, live off of state stipends and have little capacity to mobilize their followers. Urban mass movements do exist such as the COB in Bolivia, the CTA and the unemployed workers’ movements (MTD) in Argentina (engaged in mass road blockages), the PIT-CNT in Uruguay and the Frente Patriotico in Ecuador and Paraguay.


Nonetheless, even where the potentialities for mass urban organizing exist there is the constant reality of mass repression, hindering the deepening of a revolutionary urban-rural alliance. In Colombia during the peace agreement of 1984-90 between the FARC and President Betancourt, the left attempted to organize a mass electoral party. Between 4000-5000 activists and two presidential candidates were killed and scores of municipal officeholders were assassinated by the military backed death squads, forcing the surviving militants to rejoin the guerrilla movement and to resume the rural based armed struggle. In Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador), the former guerrilla commanders were effectively incorporated into the electoral arena, but at the price of abandoning the peasant struggle and remaining a marginal force in the Congress.

Facing the dilemma of ‘cooptation’ or repression, the peasant movements have responded in several ways. First, radicalizing the struggle by engaging in sustained and extensive road blockages affecting the shipment of foodstuffs to the city and prime materials for export. Secondly, by bringing the struggle to the city: the MST organizes national marches into Brasilia of over 100,000 people, recruiting urban supporters as they march.

In Mexico, the Zapatistas also marched to Mexico City mobilizing over 300,000 in Mexico City. In Ecuador the CONAIE has occupied Quito and even “taken the Congress”, establishing a short-lived ‘popular junta’ with progressive junior military officials. Similar demonstrations and peasant marches have taken place in La Paz and Asuncion. These demonstrations of force usually secure a negotiating session with the government, a set of agreements that are honored in the breach and the demobilization for the time being.

The mass show of force ends up a negotiating tool to pressure the existing regime to modify its neo-liberal agenda. Despite its revolutionary appearance, it is a ‘reformist’ strategy either because of subjective or objective realities. Many of the radical leaders of the peasant movements, like Vargas of CONAIE, have engaged in the repeated ritual of mass protest-negotiation-agreements-broken promises, mass protests, etc., for almost a decade. Mass pressure politics rather than revolutionary struggles for state power are dictated by the weaknesses in the cities, and/or the limitations in the strategic thinking of the leaders concerning the nature of the state.

Compounding the complexity of the peasant struggles is the divisions among peasant movements and the weak coordination between peasant organizations, which plays into the hands of a divide and conquer strategy of the state.In Bolivia the rivalry between Evo Morales of the cocaleros and Quispe of the peasant movements is a case in point. Similar divisions exist in Paraguay and to a lesser degree in Brazil. The most striking case of fragmentation, however, is Mexico, where each state has its own militant organization and sometimes two or three according to region. In this context, the state frequently offers agreements or concessions to one sector at the expense of others, thus driving a wedge in terms of future unity of action.

Nonetheless, efforts have succeeded in forging tactical alliances among all rural sectors. In Colombia in August 2001 there was a successful ‘paro agropecuario’ which included everyone from coffee growers to day laborers paralyzing major highways throughout the Colombian countryside. Likewise, the several Indian organizations in Mexico have formed a national organization articulating their interests and expressing their solidarity with the EZLN.

These alliances and coordinators, the growth of Latin American wide solidarity of peasant movements is a major step forward. But the key problem of confronting U.S. backed client-states and their military might remains a formidable challenge. Both the Zapatista and the MST efforts to build counterpart organizations in the cities were unsuccessful. While urban based religious and human rights groups, left parliamentary deputies, academics and trade unionists do provide support, they do not constitute anti-systemic forces that could aid the revolutionary peasant movements in transforming the state. The most promising development in urban politics is the barrio based urban unemployed movement in Argentina and the community based Coordinator of Popular organizations (COPS) in the Dominican Republic. Both have demonstrated a capacity at national coordinated mass action which effectively paralyzes the urban economy, despite savage repression.

The alternative to rural insurgency and savage state repression is rural displacement and mass overseas migration. Over two million Colombians have been displaced by the U.S. backed para-military/military razed earth policy. Today there are more El Salvadoreans in the U.S. and Mexico than in their home country. Massive exodus of peasants in Ecuador, Colombia, Central America and the Caribbean is the “passive negative” to the failed neo-liberal experiment and state repression. Except for President Chavez in Venezuela, who speaks to a massive resettlement of rural migrants back to the countryside, no state in Latin America has either the resources or political will to reverse the decline of agriculture as a whole and peasant agriculture in particular. Integrated into world markets, subordinated to Washington, the state has increasingly pursued policies of ‘emptying the countryside’, confiscating and transfering fertile peasant lands to big landowners and repressing those who remain to engage in the burgeoning mass movements. The dislike is mutual: virtual no mass peasant movement isaligned with any state in Latin America.

(Republished from The James Petras Website by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Economics • Tags: Latin America 
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