Inside the MNLM Squatters Movement
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Inside the MNLM Squatters Movement

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By Brian Mier.

When the Brazilian Military Dictatorship ended in 1985, citizens began a nation wide campaign to petition for people’s amendments to the new constitution, which was ratified in 1988. One of the most important victories, from a popular participation standpoint, were people’s amendments 182 and 183, which guarantee the right for anyone who doesn’t own property to squat on land that is not being used productively and is not part of an environmental protection area. It also gives landless citizens the right to squat in any abandoned building in which the owner owes back taxes. In both cases, due to laws that were subsequently ratified to enforce the amendments, the responsibility falls on the government to dissapropriate the land from its owners, pass the deeds to the squatters and provide funding to upgrade the living conditions and utilities delivery to meet basic standards of what is defined as dignified housing. Since 1988 when the constitution was ratified, more than half a million Brazilian families have received land deeds after squatting in informal settlements and empty buildings. Miguel Lobato, 50, is one of the leaders of the  Movimento Nacional de Luta pela Moradia (National Housing Struggle Movement/MNLM) a poor people’s or “popular” urban social movement that fights for squatters’ rights in 26 Brazilian states, which is especially strong in his home town of Belém, Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte.  He is also a member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum/FNRU) directorate.  I met with him on December 9, 2017, while he was in São Paulo for a meeting of the Frente Brasil Popular, the broad based coalition that was organized in 2016 to fight against the coup.

What is the MNLM?

The MNLM started during a nation wide mobilization that took place in Brazil in 1987. We were working to create a people’s amendment for urban reform to the new 1988 Federal Constitution.  We spent 1987 and 1988 debating the federal constitution in communities across the country and we managed to help approve articles 182 and 183, which declare adequate housing as a basic human right and require the government to prioritize the social right to property over the profit motive. During the mobilization for the people’s amendments, we created a national, poor people’s social movement for housing in Brazil.

What does the MNLM do?

We fight for urban reform. Housing is our main priority but also fight for the right to the city, for sanitation, water and sewage collection and treatment, for urban mobility, and for the legalization of informal settlements.

What are the strategies that you use in this fight for housing rights?

We have several different strategies. Our main strategy to guarantee that adequate housing policies are implemented in our country, in accordance with our constitution, is to coordinate occupations of vacant urban land and empty buildings.  Through these efforts, some 50,000 of our working class members have gotten the deeds to urban land and apartments in 26 states in Brazil.

You are from Belém, one of the Brazilian cities that has the strongest social movement traditions. Can you talk a bit about the housing issue there?

Housing in the Amazon region is complicated. Para is a rich state full of very poor people. There is a huge housing deficit, both in absolute numbers and from a quality standpoint. Most of the urban population of Para live in informal housing, without the legal titles for their land.  Many of them live in wooden stilt houses on the edges of rivers, inlets, canals and streams in medium and large cities, or they live very far from the urban centers. Belém, the capital of Para, is a city that is completely made up of squatters’ occupations,  crisscrossed with canals, rivers and streams that feed into the Amazon river. Only 4% of the city is connected to the sewage grid. All of the hydro-graphic basins are occupied with wooden stilt houses.  Our social movement was born in the squatters’ occupations.  It is a  big challenge to fight for adequate housing rights in Para. Our society  is very capitalist, so the rich exert an intense level of violence  against community leaders and occupations. We  managed to pressure the state to implement a basic housing policy after a lot of struggle, but its a violent state and when they order forced mass evictions it’s very violent and the squatters leaders are persecuted. They are still killing social movement leaders in the countryside and the cities of Para.

How did you get started in the housing rights movement? 

Let me start by saying that nobody from the working class in this country ever achieved anything without fighting for it. Everything that the Brazilian population achieved happened through a lot of fight. Only people who have lived under the black plastic tarp know how hard it is to live in a squatters’ occupation.  70% of the Brazilian population have lived on occupied land at one point or another in their lives. The Brazilian housing policy only exists on paper.

I’ve fought for housing rights since I was 7 years old.  I was born in a neighborhood that had been completely occupied.  We kids played soccer in the middle of the  dirt street, in a neighborhood that had no sewage collection or treatment, no sports, culture and leisure options, where the state was totally absent.  A local businessman sent thugs into our neighborhood to start knocking down houses. A man came up to our neighbor’s wooden shack with a chainsaw and my little friends and me sent him running under a shower of rocks. The businessmen who were trying to coordinate a mass eviction and land grab called us in to ask why we were throwing rocks at those people. From that day forward I’ve never left the housing movement. I entered the movement and didn’t even know I was in it. We started fighting for housing rights in the 70s and through the 80s and 90s it was very difficult due to police repression.

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Some middle class conservatives like to try to discredit social movements like the MNLM by saying that they are  a group of people who suck up to the PT party, that they are lazy,  don’t work and just want free handouts from the government.  How would you respond to this and what is the MNLM’s relationship with the PT party? 

It is true that there are a lot of people who support the PT party in the MNLM, but we have  members who support all the different parties and we have members who don’t like any political party at all . Our task is to organize people who need housing and who need the right to the city.  We fight for democracy. We think that the Lula government got a lot of things right, but they made a lot of mistakes too.  For example during the transition from Lula to Dilma’s government they stopped funding the PAC Favela Urbanization project. This was a mistake because this program solved the problems for the population that was living in shacks, in stilt houses over the mud, who lived in occupations that were thirty years old but still didn’t have any infrastructure, running water, paved roads or schools.  I live in a community that benefited from this program. It improved the quality of life for the 3000 families that live in my neighborhood on the periphery of Belem.  It was a mistake to stop the program.

The Lula government made a lot of mistakes, but despite that it still  did more for the poor than any other government. When they made mistakes we protested against them. We took to the streets to dispute Lula and Dilma’s urban policy. But despite whatever mistakes they made, we are against last year’s Coup, against the phoney impeachment and continue to oppose the coup government.  Refusing to recognize Michel Temer’s coup government doesn’t mean you are a PT supporter. We oppose it because we defend democracy.  We knew that what was being really being organized was a criminal gang. It’s an organized crime group that no longer hides it’s ideas from the population.  Its modus operandi is to act as an organized crime group inside the Brazilian Congress. If they tried to honestly present their platform of privatizations, destroying the retirement system, ending labor rights and bringing Brazil back to slavery days they would never win a single election. They were only able to push through their agenda through a coup. The military didn’t want another dictatorship like in 1964, so this coup was pushed through by the parliament and the judiciary, and they put the puppet Michel Temer in charge to serve their interests by dismantling the country.   Within this context  the working class had to be united. What is the way out? It’s through the leftist political parties.  We don’t agree with the people who characterize our movement as being part of the PT party.  I wish the PT party would give us money. We never took one cent from them.

We think that the PT party still has a viable program that is focused on the low income sectors of the population. We think that it is a party that was created from the bottom up, through dialogue with society. This is why we support the left.  We are a social movement that defends the idea of socialism. We believe we will only solve the problems of the Brazilian people with socialism. Our organic militants know this. We don’t fool ourselves with this or that government program. We believe the government needs integrated policies that prioritize the poor. The poor population has to study a lot so that it can understand what a socialist society is and choose it. We are against the idea of creating socialism by decree, from the top down. You can’t just have someone come up and say  “now Brazil is a socialist republic”, overnight.  This doesn’t work. This isn’t what socialism is supposed to be and it won’t work out if its done this way. Socialism requires a change of thinking.  We have a lot of organizing work to do for the people to defend socialism.

In Argentina, a conservative judiciary under a neoliberal president is trying to arrest Kristina Kirchner before she can run for the senate. Here in Brazil a conservative judiciary is trying to arrest Lula so that he can’t run for president. Do you think that Lula will be able to run for office? If he is not allowed to run what will the future be for the Brazilian left? 

It’s really bad to talk about politics based on names.  Politics should be discussed related to programs, not individual names. How are they going to govern this country independently of names?

I don’t think there will be direct elections in 2018.  The elites who made the coup in Brasil are not joking around.  They sold off all or our pre-salt off shore oil reserves and took billions out of the public health and eduction systems.  However, they haven’t been able  to finish pushing through their entire agenda in the year since they took power.  Furthermore,  they don’t have a candidate capable of beating anyone from the left. If Lula doesn’t run it will be Ciro Gomes, Jacques Wagner, Fernando Haddad or Eduardo Suplicy. It will be someone who will beat them because they can no longer hide their unpopular agenda. Their agenda is more privatizations, a minimal state, more hunger and lower wages. They are trying to pass a new law in Congress  reducing the lunch break to 30 minutes- this is an example of their agenda. They can’t hide it anymore. The Brazilian people already know what is going on. One year from now the Brazilian worker who did not take to the streets to fight against the labor law reforms is going to know how much his absence cost. The rejection level against this group who made the coup and are governing Brasil is already above 90% and is only going to rise.  So independently of whether it is Lula or Ciro Gomes, independently of the name, the Brazilian left would win the next election. But in my opinion this won’t happen in 2018. I believe that they will try to change the political system to parliamentarism and Congress will appoint Temer as Prime Minister because he is the only guy who has made a total commitment to the Brazilian elite’s agenda. It’s not just the poor who are furious with the agenda that Temer  and his organized crime group are trying to implement. The Brazilian middle class can’t take it anymore. The Brazilian middle class is seeing that it entered into a hole and was robbed when it came out in favor of Dilma’s impeachment. The nationalist business class realize now that they entered a thievery scheme.  It is no longer  just the poor , it’s everyone who is losing out right now- nearly the entire country is losing. Latin America in general is being deconstructed to recuperate the US power that was lost in the 21st Century.  It started losing power over Brasil in the 3rd year of Lula’s first mandate, when Lula helped strengthen Mercosur, when Brazil let go of its dependance on the US and started spreading out through the rest of the World and strengthening other countries in Latin America. When the Kirchner family and Venezuela agreed to start strengthening Mercosur it was a defeat for North American imperialism. The growth of China and its entrance in the BRICS was another blow to US hegemony, especially when the BRIC nations decided to create a development bank to rival the World Bank. The coup that these rotten conservatives brought to Brasil is putting a stop to all this. It’s no joke, and it can’t be consolidated in one year. This is why I believe there won’t be elections in 2018.  But I think that Lula should run for office anyway he can.  He could run for office from behind bars and he would still win. If the conservatives arrest Lula he will become a hero. If they kill him, he’ll become a martyr. And if they leave him alone he’ll be the next President of the Republic. There is no way out for the Brazilian right. Their only way out is to continue with the coup. This is why I don’t think there will be elections next year. If they hold elections Lula could win from inside or outside of the prison. If he decides not to run anyone he supports will win the election. And this worries me. Because nobody is talking about a political project for Brazil anymore. Everyone is just talking about names. And the urban reform movement loses out with this.

Why?

Here is something Lula is saying that I don’t agree with. He is saying that if he is elected he’ll hold a referendum to ask the Brazilian people if he should annul all of Temer’s reforms.  In saying this he treats the coup government as if it were legitimate. You do not need a referendum to annul the actions of an illegitimate government. The Temer government is corrupt and it was put into power illegally through a corrupt congress and judiciary. So you don’t have to ask the Brazilian people if you should annul a retrogression in Brazilian labor rights or not.  You have to just cancel it, the same way they should annul what the Temer government did to urban policy. This has to be done immediately. The first action that Lula or anyone else should do upon being directly elected to the presidency is to annul every thing that the coup government did in Brazil. They can’t just tiptoe around trying to decide if they should punish the bandits or not, like Lula and Dilma did on the issue of the assassins from the Military Dictatorship who killed thousands of workers. We can’t start another 13 years of debate over whether we should arrest them or not, as they did with the military dictatorship criminals. We have to be clear with the Brazilian people that to elect Lula is to annul all of the actions of the Coup government. What were their acts? Ending labor rights and taking money away from the poor population’s health, education, sanitation and housing programs. This all has to be annulled.  Annul everything they gave away to the North American imperialists, like our petroleum. Give the Brazilian people their retirement pensions back. Dilma’s allocation of profits from petroleum to pensions, public education and health which the coup government removed was the best bet to improve quality of life for the Brazilian working class.  When Lula says that he’s not going to annul everything but will have a referendum, he is recognizing an illegitimate government that took power to sell off our national sovereignty.

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There is a large segment of youth on the peripheries who don’t seem to understand ultra-conservative candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s agenda, who support him against their own best interests. What is your opinion of this?

I think that fascism in Brasil is increasing, this is a fact. And it’s not just growing among the rich, its gaining popularity with the poor.  We have a repressed agenda in Brasil. The Afro-Brazilian rights agenda and the woman’s rights agenda are repressed. The Lula and Dilma governments addressed these two agendas, but they did it in a timid manner.  They moved very timidly on the issue of decriminalizing abortion but it moved forward a bit. When they started putting poor kids in rich people’s universities through the affirmative action and pro-uni programs, however, this triggered a lot of class hatred. But in my opinion Jair Bolsonaro is being used by the elites. They built him up  but starting in January I believe the right will begin to attack him too because the PSDB party doesn’t see how it can fit into the presidential dispute yet. It looks like Governor Alckmin from São Paulo is going to be their candidate but if you look at the elections there is going to be the PSDB on one side, with whoever it can get in its coalition and Temer’s PMDB party on the other, because anyone who thinks Temer isn’t going to run (if they have elections)  is fooling himself.  Temer will have more support from the center than Alckmin. So we will have Temer, Alckmin and Bolsonaro fighting with each other to make it to the second round against Lula. The left will have three or four candidates, Manuela D’Avila from the PC do B, Ciro Gomes, PSOL will have a candidate so that their party doesn’t lose funding and so they can increase their number of congressmen. So there will be four candidates from the left against four from the right:  Marina Silva, Bolsonaro, Alckmin and Temer. There will be 8 or 9 people fighting to make it to the second round. The PSDB party does not identify with Bolsonaro, they are interested in electing themselves. Bolsonaro is going to start out 2018 getting punched from the left and the right. It will be just like what’s happened to Marina Silva.  Who ever thought Marina was going to make it to the second round in 2014? Only people who didn’t understand how our elections work. When the game kicked off, PMDB and PSDB played hard to knock down Marina.  They will use the same strategy against  Bolsonaro. The only thing new is that the PMDB will have its first presidential candidate in 20 years.

We see that the strikes and street protests that have been going on since the coup are not generating the results that they used to. The unions don’t have the membership that they used to because of automation. Capital’s influence over the social media, as the BBC recently pointed out, through use of right wing social media robot accounts has influenced the population into supporting politicians who don’t support their best interests. What will happen to the future of the Brazilian left, including the social movements, if the elections are canceled next year?

I think that the street protests will increase. I agree with something [Liberation Theology priest and author] Frei Betto recently said. “The people don’t know what a coup is. If the people understood what a coup is, there wouldn’t be enough streets to hold them.” Every day that passes as the people discover what a coup is they will start to mobilize and take it to the streets.  It’s the Brazilian people who will defeat the coup, not an election. This is the feeling that the fireman in Brasilia who recently tried to drive his truck into the congress building experienced.  The people have to defend him because he is going to be arrested when he gets out of the hospital.  This feeling is growing. The feeling expressed is in the Gabriel o Pensador song, “let’s kill the president”. This feeling is beginning to spread into the favelas and the Brazilian periphery. So the protests are going to grow. When the construction worker leaves his job and the employer screws him over and doesn’t pay what he is owed he will learn what the coup really means. When he goes into the labor court the next day to sue for what they owe him and he discovers that, due to Temer’s labor reforms, he no longer has free legal representation and will be held accountable for all courts costs if he loses to the employer’s army of lawyers he will realize that labor justice has been destroyed in Brazil. When the worker begins to discover this he’ll take it to the streets to say that labor reforms have to be annulled. So the protests are going to grow.  2018 is going to be a year with a lot of protests and a lot of people on the streets. It will be like the Direitos Já movement which brought down the military dictatorship. When it started there were just a few people on the streets. People joked that we weren’t large enough to fill a VW Microbus. But we filled the microbus, then we filled full-sized  buses then we filled the streets and we won our rights by fighting on the streets. The coup is going to end with people on the streets. The protests are only going to grow.


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