- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO — Thousands of land-reform activists are scheduled to converge on the capital, Brasilia, today to deliver a message of “social revolution” to the U.S. Embassy and Brazilian government.

Leaders of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) plan to present President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with a 16-point list of demands, including an acceleration of Brazil’s land reform-initiative.

They also are calling for a sharp increase in the country’s minimum wage and are demanding that Brazilian troops pull out of Haiti, where the nation is leading a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

About 12,000 MST members have vowed to take their protest today to steps of Brazil’s Congress, Central Bank, Finance Ministry and the U.S. Embassy.

“We want to send a message to Bush,” said Gilmar Mauro, an MST leader. “Get your hands off Iraq; respect Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil.”

MST leaders have sympathized with Palestinians in their struggle with Israel and have come out in support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s alternative trade plan to the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement.

The FTAA would create a 34-nation free-trade zone that would include every country in the region except Cuba. Firebrand leftist president Mr. Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro have proposed an alternative bloc that would include every nation in the hemisphere except the United States.

MST members began their 16-day, 125-mile trek on May 1, walking from the central city of Goiania to Brasilia to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Mr. Lula da Silva.

Mr. Lula da Silva campaigned on a promise to step up land reform and resettle about 400,000 landless families on underutilized land by 2007. But since he assumed office in January 2003, the government has settled only a little more than a quarter of that number.

As a result, the MST has stepped up its protest agenda.

According to land ownership surveys, an estimated 20 percent of Brazilians own 90 percent of the land, while the poorest 40 percent of the population own less than 1 percent.

One of the largest land-reform advocacy groups in the world, the MST typically invades private or unused farms to highlight their demands for more equitable land distribution.

In 2004 and so far this year there have been several deaths and numerous injuries resulting from clashes between the MST and civil and federal police and private security agents hired to guard farms.

Although he promised to do something about narrowing the land-ownership gap and distributing land to MST families, Mr. Lula da Silva has focused his attention on political and economic reform.

University of Brasilia political science professor David Fleischer said he did not expect the MST to make much headway today.

“The consequence [of the meeting] probably will not be very much,” said Mr. Fleischer, noting that Mr. Lula da Silva is unlikely to augment the rate of land distribution to the MST in the coming years.

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