Brazil's leftist under fire from left

President da Silva faces tensions over striking workers and land invasions.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The first big trouble for Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is coming from the least likely of places: the left.

The former Communist spent the first six months of his presidency shoring up Brazil's flagging economy. But now Mr. da Silva, or Lula, as he is known here, is paying the price for failing to address the country's social problems immediately, specifically, Brazil's inequitable distribution of land. According to the government, the 37 biggest landowners own more territory than the 2.5 million smallest ones.

The Landless Workers' Movement (MST) has launched a series of land invasions designed to pressure the government into speeding up agrarian reform. The group called a moratorium on such invasions during the election campaign late last year, but it abandoned the stay in March, turning up the heat by invading scores of farms, ranches, and government buildings in their most concerted series of actions in years. Some political analysts call the unrest the biggest threat to the popular president's nascent administration.

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"This is one of Lula's biggest problems," says David Fleischer, the editor of Brazil Focus, a political journal. "It's really stirred up a hornet's nest."

Lula took office Jan. 1 after winning last October's runoff with 62 percent of the ballot, about half of which came from loyal leftists like those in the MST and half from voters who saw the former union leader's move to the center as proof he could be trusted to run the country responsibly.

But while he has won plaudits for his handling of the economy - the currency has strengthened 19 percent against the dollar since he came to power, and inflation is falling - his longtime supporters are frustrated by his failure to tackle the issues he has championed ever since forming the Workers' Party in 1980.

Three deputies and a senator face expulsion from the party after speaking out against its pension-reform bill designed to modernize the country's bloated system, and federal employees went on strike last week to protest the reforms. Lula was booed in public for the first time when he addressed a trade-union congress in São Paulo last month, and the disorganization that delayed the launch of his flagship Zero Hunger program, an ambitious project designed to eradicate malnutrition, has been met with scorn.

However, it is the flammable situation in the countryside that is currently causing him concern.

The MST has been the main standard-bearer for agrarian reform, and today it has 140,000 families camped out across Brazil, agitating for agricultural land they claim is not being used productively. Brazilian law allows unproductive land to be taken over to be made productive. Lula has always stood behind the invasions and now the MST wants him to deliver.

Sensing they have a president who can give them what they want, the group has stepped up its protests by invading land, occupying government offices, blocking highways and tollbooths, and even looting food trucks.

The protests brought a prompt reaction from the right, both in the capital, Brasilia, and in the provinces. In the Chamber of Deputies, more than 150 rural lawmakers warned Lula that if he does not rein in the MST's hard-liners, they will vote en masse against the government's legislative reforms.

In the countryside, the response was even more radical. In the southern state of Parana, hooded men opened fire last week on MST members, injuring one man. Land owners are threatening to arm themselves to deter or stop trespassers. With the prospect of invasions growing, there is serious concern that more violence is just around the corner.

"Right now, the situation is very tense," says Isidoro Revers, one of the national coordinators for the Roman Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission. "The government is in a straitjacket because it has no money, and the MST can't wait. They have 140,000 families in the countryside right now waiting for land and another 800,000 people who were told by the previous government that they would get land. If they don't see that they are going to be given it, then tensions will continue to grow."

Those growing tensions prompted Lula to invite MST leaders to the Palacio do Planalto, the Brazilian White House, this week for talks aimed at easing the tensions.

The MST asked Lula to give land to 1 million families by the end of his four-year term, but government officials believe that number is unrealistic and have instead pledged to seat 60,000 this year and more in the years to come. Officials appealed to the MST to be patient and pointed out that last month the government renegotiated debt payments to help 825,000 small landowners and authorized $1.88 billion in aid to small farmers.

They are now hoping that the MST will heed their calls for calm.

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