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Brazilian leader in social movement speaks tonight at La Peña

By Jia-Rui Chong Daily Planet staff
Wednesday March 20, 2002

One of the defining moments for Wanusa Pereira Dos Santos was when a heavily armed police force rushed a settlement of 300 families, chased them up a hill and then set fire to their homes.  

Even when the police packed them on a bus and dropped them somewhere far away, they went back and built up their lives again. 

“The important point is that these people didn’t give up. They showed how strong they were in looking after their own rights,” said Pereira, who will be speaking tonight at 7:30 p.m. at La Peña Cultural Center about Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). The event will be in English and Portuguese. 

Speaking to the Daily Planet through a translator, Pereira explained that she is in Berkeley to spread the word about the MST, Latin America’s largest social movement that works to redistribute land in Brazil.  

Because the Brazilian constitution says that land has a social purpose, it is legal to take land that is not being used “productively” and work it. The MST also builds houses, schools and health clinics. 

“We really want our story to reach those who are willing to listen,” said Pereira. 

“In the U.S. there are people who follow the government and those who think freely and want a different world to emerge.” 

Pereira, who got involved with the organization as a college student studying social work, will be talking tonight about the history of the MST, its current projects and the problems with mainstream thinking about globalization.  

One of Pereira’s main topics will be about the free-trade bill before the Senate – what the movement calls “NAFTA on steroids” – and its effects on the entire American region. 

Her speech will draw from her extensive experience as one of the coordinators of the movement’s political education program. She organizes classrooms in the settlements where the history of Brazil and its political movements are taught and practical ways of moving toward a new Brazil that is fair to workers is discussed. 

Constantly under attack by the government, and especially the media, the workers in the MST need to be aware of their own rights and history, said Pereira. 

“There needs to be a raising of consciousness so we can have confidence in ourselves and resist,” she said.  

Pereira’s visit is hosted by the San Francisco-based Friends of the MST, a network that supports the MST in America and holds public educational events.  

Because of her importance to the movement – and to workers’ movements worldwide – the FMST is organizing a nationwide tour.  

“She is one of the most significant contacts with community groups and social groups and organizations in the U.S. For those struggling on the ground here, she has a big impact,” said FMST Program Coordinator Dawn Plummer. 

La Peña was chosen as a venue for Pereira’s appearance in the Bay Area because the cultural center has not only hosted art events, but also political events, said Eric Leenson, co-founder of the center. 

Leenson, also one of the co-founders of the FMST, has seen first-hand the effects of MST’s land reforms. 

“There’s a sense of empowerment for people who were poor and the hopeless. Through the movement, they can see a future for themselves that had not existed before,” he said. 

This is not something that should be limited to Brazil, Leenson added. “It’s part of a bigger struggle for the average working person to have a say in the economic workings of society.” 

Tickets to the La Peña event are on a sliding scale of $5-$15. For more information on the MST and Pereira’s visit, go to the FMST Web site at