Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Cover - The Seed Was PlantedClifford Andrew Welch

There was a delay. In April 2007, I personally asked for a copy of the report of the U.S. investigator who interviewed me about the MST. I asked again by mail in September, but never got an answer, much less the document. It was the Wikileaks group that recently released the results of the movements of the U.S. agent in the Pontal do Paranapanema - SP, and my name was in the midst of reports that came out in newspapers on December 19th and 20th, 2010.

As assistant coordinator of the Center for Studies, Research and Agrarian Reform Projects (NERA) of the State University of São Paulo (UNESP) in April 2009, I confess I was somewhat excited about the visit of Vice Consul Benjamin A. LeRoy, the U.S. Consulate General in Sao Pãulo, when he asked us for an hour to "get to know the work of NERA, and learn more about land reform and social movements of landless peasants" as Arlete Salvador, the assistant for political affairs of the consulate wrote to us.

 As an historian specializing in the study of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America I was aware of  people like LeRoy and his reports. They were important sources for understanding the nature of the empire’s interference in its sphere of influence. Now the shoe was on the other foot and I was the source. I was surprised with the errors in Benjamin’s report, the distortion of the facts are interpreted by Consul General Thomas White and, again, worried about the historian's empirical method, which relies heavily on official documents and notes.

 Does it makes sense to rely on a researcher who doesn’t know where he was or to whom he was speaking? The dispatch that relates to Benjamin’s investigation uses the acronym UNESTE instead of UNESP and gives my affiliation as the University of Michigan, both statements completely wrong. Even worse is the statement attributed to me by Benjamin and reported by White and that was the headline in O Globo: "The MST had spies in INCRA to guide the invasions.” I never said that and I never would say something like that. In the first place, the word "spy" is the invention of O Globo, because it does not appear in the diplomatic reports provided by the newspapers.

 In the May 29 "telegram" in question, White wrote that "The MST follows a programmed methodology in its land  occupations that includes the use of contacts within the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) to help select targets, according to [...] Welch." At another point, the Consul reports that I informed him that "the MST leverages contacts in INCRA to determine the next area subject to expropriation.” According to the report, "Welch told Benjamin that INCRA does not provide the information to the public and that the only way for the MST to access data would be through informants within INCRA."

 The way the consul interpreted the Benjamin’s report of things that I didn’t say about the relations between the MST and INCRA reflects McCarthyism more than Brazilian reality. McCarthyism is the ideology of "red scare" that caused alarm in the U.S. in the middle of the last century when it was alleged that Russian spies who infiltrated the public sector were undermining the country's national security. The current situation in Brazil has nothing to do with the Cold War, obviously. The constitutional duty of INCRA is to carry out agrarian reform. The MST tries to pressure INCRA to carry out land reform. It’s good to remember, as I said to Benjamin, that INCRA’s information is public for the whole world. I remember that I tried to explain to Benjamin that most of the occupations of the MST were not carried out randomly, but in areas with ongoing expropriation. That is to say, the movement makes an effort to collaborate with the constitutional process of identification of land that is unused or subject to expropriation for violating labor laws or environmental. It is the consul who invented a sense of secrecy.

 In the same document from April, which is titled "The MST method: benefits from the government, alienates the neighbors,” the consul takes advantage of research from Benjamin to argue that members of the MST who gain lots from INCRA's land reform will end up "renting to agribusiness" the land "in a cynical and ironic practice." The source for this information seems to have been “an agribusiness leader” in Presidente Prudente.

 Taken out of context, as represented in the diplomatic dispatch, the renting of lots appears to indeed be "cynical and ironic." The report does not include the pressure of the cane mills on the settlers, offering easy money for the planting of sugar cane, which has caused many problems for settlements, as shown by various surveys conducted by UNESP*.  The national leadership of the MST is openly against the practice.

 There are other errors and interpretation in the documents and news. The Folha took advantage of the publication of the documents to allege that the MST is in "decline," the "basis of the movement has shrunk." O Globo gives prominence to an alleged abandonment of the cause of the struggle for land by President Lula, an interpretation appearing in the telegrams from White. However, it is difficult to sustain these arguments. In fact, the calculations of Lula government statistics as well as the NERA argue the opposite, showing that Lula settled more families than President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who claimed to have done more to reform land than any other Brazilian President, but Lula's government maintains that it settled 59 percent of the beneficiaries of agrarian reform in Brazil's history.

 In the case of land occupations and the number of families involved in the struggle for land, the statistics are almost equal. During the 8 years of the Cardoso government, 571,650 families participated in 3,876 occupations organized by more than 20 movements. The numbers of the Lula government have still not been completely counted, but during the first seven years, 480,214 families participated in 3621 occupations.

 We have to thank Wikileaks for breaking the code that still reigns in diplomatic circles decades after the end of the Cold War. In my case, it allowed me to deny wrong facts and deconstruct anachronistic interpretations, including reports from the mainstream press.

* See, for example, the research of Elienai Constantino Gonçalves: Territorial Dispute between peasant movements and sugar cane agribusiness in the Pontal - SP, 2010; Nivea Massaretto. Territorial impacts of  sugar cane in rural settlements in the Pontal, 2010.


 Clifford Welch is an Adjunct Professor of History at the Federal University of São Paulo, NERA Researcher.  Cliff Welch is the author of the epic study of agarian reform in the state of São Paulo early in the 20th century titles The Seed Was Planted. Professor Welch can be reached at: