Brazil: police repress landless protest

More than 15,000 Brazilian campesinos marched some 9 km from a meeting at the Nilson Nelson Gymnasium stadium in Brasilia to the Plaza of the Three Powers on Feb. 12 to protest the slow pace at which the center-left government of President Dilma Rousseff is implementing agrarian reform. The protesters had been attending the Sixth Congress of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), the largest of the Brazilian groups organizing landless campesinos. Kelli Marfort, from the MST's Gender sector, called the government's policy an "embarrassment." "Last year 7,000 families were settled," she charged, saying that the MST alone has 90,000 families living in encampments and waiting for land. "A total of 150,000 families are in encampments in Brazil, many of them for more than 10 years. We're here to announce that we're not satisfied, and we're asking for a people's agrarian reform."

The march's first stop was at the US embassy, where protesters attached signs calling for the release of the remaining four alleged Cuban agents still imprisoned in the US. "Terror's flag is here, sowing hatred in the entire world," MST director Enio Bonenberg said. "They're the real terrorists." The marchers proceeded to the Federal Supreme Court (TSF), where they protested the failure of the court system to prosecute murders and other crimes in the countryside in a timely manner, and especially the attitude of TSF president Joaquim Barbosa. Agents of the military police met the crowd with tear gas and pepper spray. "This sort of attitude is typical of the TSF's behavior," said Fabio Tomas from the São Paulo. "Twenty police agents act with brutality in the midst of 15,000 people to create a political fact and legitimize the violence against us."

Some of the demonstrators remained at the TSF while others crossed the Plaza of the Three Powers toward the Planalto Palace, which houses the presidential offices. The MST set up an encampment outside the building, along with banners calling on President Rousseff to cut her ties with agribusiness and asking: "Dilma, where is the Agrarian Reform?" Police used pepper spray on the protesters as they advanced on the palace, and about 15 agents beat and fired rubber bullets at a group of demonstrators who were getting out props for a street theater performance. A total of 12 protesters were injured during the day's events, according to the MST, while the police claimed that 30 agents were injured. João Paulo Rodrigues, a national MST leader, blamed the military police for the confrontation: "We have a police force that's unprepared [for protests]–or very well prepared for generating a conflict."

The president met with MST leaders on Feb. 13. Alexandre Conçeicão, the group's national coordinator, told reporters after the meeting that the activists had complained to Rousseff about the concentration of land in big estates and the heavy use of pesticides and had pushed for land grants for 100,000 families. "This is going to be a great year of struggles and mobilizations to settle all those families," he said. According to Agrarian Development Minister Pepe Vargas, the government may distribute land to 30,000 families this year and will see about speeding up the process for the future.

The MST action was the latest in a series of demonstrations over the past year protesting what is seen as the Rousseff government's failure to meet basic needs while spending massively on preparations for this summer's World Cup soccer championship and the 2016 Olympics. "While Dilma doesn't pay attention to the landless," the MST's Marfort said on Feb. 12, "she gives money with full hands to agribusiness and the FIFA"—the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA). (Adital, Brazil, Feb. 13, from the MST; AFP, Feb. 13, via 7 News, Australia)

Santiago Andrade, a TV camera operator injured during a transit protest in Rio de Janeiro on Feb. 6, died from his injuries on Feb. 10. Police agents arrested protester Fabio Raposo Barbosa, who admitted on Feb. 8 that he had carried the fireworks bomb that hit Andrade, although he said someone else threw it. The police said they were seeking the second person. (Latin American Herald Tribune, Feb. 10, from EFE)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 16.