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Synthesis/Regeneration 38   (Fall 2005)

The Centrality of Peasant Movements in Latin America:
Achievements and Limitations

by James Petras

For over a century, social analysts of the right and left have been predicting the disappearance of the peasantry with the advance of Capitalism. Even today, some of the more prestigious authors of the left, like Eric Hobsbawn, write of the marginalization of the peasantry, deducing their conclusions from quantitative demographic data. On the neo-liberal right, President da Silva of Brazil and his Agricultural Minister have provided massive resources to the agro-business export sector, relegating ecological, human rights, small farmer and landless worker demands to the lowest of priorities. Despite this seeming consensus among academics and politicians, the peasantry refuses to disappear.

Over the past twenty years, the peasantry has re-emerged, playing a central role in changing regimes, determining national agendas, leading struggles against international trade agreements (ALCA or Free Trade Area of the Americas), as well as establishing regional and local bases of power. In many countries, coalitions of landless farm workers, small family farmers and peasants have been central to national struggles against neo-liberal regimes and free trade policies. Rural movements have detonated larger struggles, activating urban classes, trade unions, civic groups, and human rights organizations.

Data from most Latin American countries over the past quarter of a century demonstrate that peasant and other rural movements have become increasingly central to any process of social change and resistance to neo-liberals. Paradoxically, this occurs at a time when the urban population has increased but the level of class organization and internal cohesion of the industrial working class has been substantially weakened. The weak link in any potential peasant-worker alliance is to be found in the decline of militancy and organization among industrial trade union leaders, not from the rural organizations.

Writers on the peasantry have emphasized their “local,” “parochial,” or “sectoral” interests—as opposed to national, universalistic, and class interests. A contemporary version of this perception is found in many writers, NGO leaders, and journalists who focus on “micro-interests”—local participation and projects of the peasant communities and their “identity politics.”

Another school of thought emphasizes the revolutionary potentiality of the peasants, a perception more commonly found in past writing than in the present. Neither of these schools captures the complex, changing, and dialectical struggles in which peasant movements are engaged. Almost all of the major peasant movements in Latin America engage in local, national, and even international struggles and campaigns. Local struggles over immediate grievances (human rights violations) become the basis for national mobilizations and international solidarity campaigns.

Most of the movements have built local bases of political hegemony as a springboard to national power and challenges for state power; the cases of CONAIE (National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities) in Ecuador and the Cocaleros (coca farmers) in Bolivia are illustrative. While re-vindication of ethnic or Indian/African-American rights and autonomy are central to many peasant movements, they are strongly linked to class interests and horizontal alliances with other exploited classes.

Both the micro and macro conceptions of peasant struggles are mechanical, one-sided, and fragmented perceptions of dialectical activity in which peasant movements combine local and national struggles, social and political demands, class and ethnic consciousness. One cannot extrapolate these patterns of peasant activity from specific times and places. For example, in a time of severe political repression or political disillusionment, peasant movements may shift their agendas to local demands, specific projects and defensive activities. In contrast, in a period of expanding membership and victorious struggles, peasant movements tend to raise national issues and challenge the authority of the central political powers.

Most peasant movements are directly engaged in one or another form of political action. With one notable exception, all of the major peasant leaders think and act to accumulate political power and, hopefully, to transform, share, or take state power.

Peasant movements vary in their attitudes toward direct action and electoral strategies. In some cases, the movements modify their strategies, depending on external circumstances and internal changes. Generally, peasant movements rely mostly on direct action strategies—occupying large estates, blocking highways, taking over municipal offices, etc. Electoral activities take various forms: creating new political organizations or supporting an existing urban “leftist” or “populist” party.

…peasant movements have achieved positive changes despite the state, not because of it.

A careful analysis of the peasant movement experience over the past 25 years with different political strategies leads to the conclusion that direct action methods have been far more effective and positive than electoral strategies in securing short and medium term peasant goals, regardless of the stated formal identity of the electoral party. For example, in Ecuador, the CONAIE, through direct action, was able to overthrow two corrupt neo-liberal presidents, secure positive social reforms, and strengthen their mass support in civil society. When CONAIE turned toward electoral politics, influenced by its fraternal party, Pachacutic, and supported President Gutierrez, the results were totally negative: declines in social expenditures, greater political repression, and divisions and disillusionment in the movement.

Similar experiences occurred temporarily in Bolivia, Brazil, and elsewhere, where peasant movements relying on direct action strategies were able to expropriate large estates through occupations and road blockages and overthrow corrupt neo-liberal presidents. On the other hand when the movements relied on electoral “center-left” politicians, the results were wholly negative. In Brazil, the MST (Rural Landless Workers Movement) under the Lula regime witnessed a significant decline in land expropriations, increased pressure from and displacements by agro-export elites and high levels of repression. In Bolivia, the Cocaleros, who initially supported President Mesa, suffered coca eradication programs, a regressive petroleum law providing few resources for rural development, and a series of broken agreements.

State and movements

Recent history demonstrates that peasant movements exercise significant power in civil society. They organize, mobilize, and intervene to promote positive changes in land tenure, block regressive free trade policies, and even topple corrupt regimes. In most national contexts, the states, both federal and provincial, have been enemies of peasant movements. In Mexico, the state has severely repressed peasant movements in Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca and throughout southern-central Mexico. In Colombia, thousands of peasant leaders have been assassinated by paramilitary groups associated with the Armed Forces which have displaced over three million peasants in pursuit of a scorched earth policy. In Brazil before and during the Lula presidency scores of peasant activists, religious and human rights advocates have been murdered by local gunmen with the complicity of provincial judges, police chiefs and the malignant neglect of the federal government. Even in Venezuela under President Chávez, over 110 peasant leaders, many of them land reform beneficiaries, have been murdered between 2001–2004 by landlord “private armies” with the complicity of local officials.

With rare exceptions, peasant movements have achieved positive changes despite the state, not because of it. This does not mean that the state is always and everywhere an enemy of peasant demands. The Cuban revolution is illustrative of the possibilities of synergy between peasant mobilization and positive state intervention. In Venezuela similar possibilities exist—if the cumbersome and incompetent agrarian reform bureaucratic structures can become operative.

Even in cases where the initial state response is negative, mass peasant pressure organized with urban coalitions, including church, university, human rights, and trade unions (and including some progressive parliamentary deputies), can force regimes to finance land expropriations and agricultural cooperatives, as has been the case in Brazil.

In contemporary Latin America, two models of agricultural development stand out: the Venezuelan and the Brazilian. President Chávez has called for an extensive program of land reform, expropriation of landed estates with fallow land, and the resettlement of landless and subsistence farmers and recent rural migrants to the cities. In contrast, Lula has promoted the expansion of huge agro-export enterprises, the concentration of land and the financing of agro-business enterprises at the expense of small farmers and landless workers.

What is crucial in discussing the relationship of the “state” to peasant movements are the class character of the state and the ideological orientation of the Executive. In the case of Venezuela under Chávez we have a favorable relation between peasant activists and the government based on the latter’s populist leadership. In the case of Brazil under Lula we have a neo-liberal regime run by and for agro-business.

Centrality of peasant movements

In many countries of Latin America, peasant movements play a major political role in influencing national politics into the twenty-first century. In Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Central America, Paraguay, and Mexico, peasant-farmer and peasant-Indian organizations have been instrumental at different moments in setting national agendas. While it is clear that in all countries the percentage of rural residents has declined, the quality of social organizations and leadership has improved in many cases—at least compared to urban popular organizations.

There are several objective and subjective reasons for the prominence of peasant movements today. In the first place, neo-liberal policies have had a pincer effect on the peasantry. They facilitate the importation of heavily subsidized food and other agricultural products, driving down prices and bankrupting peasant producers while the drive to accumulate foreign exchange leads the neo-liberal regimes to encourage the expansion of the agro-export sector, resulting in the expulsion of peasant producers from the land.

Bankruptcy and expulsion mean not only unemployment or decline in income, but loss of place of residence, community, and family ties. It means uprooting, a deeply alienating experience. The threats and realities posed by neo-liberalism are especially profound in rural areas as there are no alternative sites of habitation, community, or employment. The destructive effects of neo-liberalism are more strongly experienced in the countryside than in the city.

A new peasant leadership has emerged. It is much better educated, politicized, and independent of the tutelage of urban elites and party machines than past peasant leaders. Unlike the older urban trade unions and their leaders who have been bureaucratized and become embedded in tri-partite commissions, the new peasant movements have emerged on the basis of independent class and ethnic struggles which challenge trade agreements between the local ruling classes and the imperial state.

Uneven development of peasant movements and struggles

The upsurge of peasant movements during the last decade is uneven in time and place. Major peasant movements have passed through high and low moments of organization and activity. Likewise, the relative strength of the movements varies greatly from country to country, depending on the nature and policies of the state. Given this complex picture, it is difficult to make universal generalizations about the peasant movements at any particular time and place. Typically, we can distinguish three levels of peasant organization and struggle, based on their impact on national politics and socio-economic policy.

At the high end we find Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where peasant movements are engaged in long-term, large-scale struggles, which have expropriated numerous latifundios and/or overthrown regimes. At the middle levels of organization and struggle, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and El Salvador are countries that have militant and active movements which have regional power and which would be stronger if they had not suffered severe repression. At the low end are the movements in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Venezuela.

This classification, however, needs to be qualified. Because of the favorable policies of Venezuelan President Chávez toward agrarian reform, and a positive policy toward land distribution and peasant organization and co-operatives, a significant peasant movement has emerged since early 2000. Moreover, in Argentina, while peasant movement has little national impact, they have developed regional influence in the Northeast, in Santiago de Estero, Formosa, and other provinces.

Powerful peasant movements and organizations tend to correlate with large cohesive Indian communities, displaced landless rural workers and peasants, where large-scale agro-business interests have bankrupted small producers and where US imperialist clients have launched coca eradication programs without providing meaningful alternatives.

At the end of the 1970s, many experts argued that peasant movements were an anachronistic, declining force for social transformation. Focusing on certain demographic figures (the urban-rural ratio) and the decline of peasant-based guerrilla movements, and guided by the modernization rhetoric of local imperial clients and the World Bank, these observers failed to see or understand the emergence of a new generation of modern peasant leaders. Peasant organizations have more than made up for quantitative losses in relative population with qualitative gains in organization, leadership, strategies and tactics.

Rise and relative decline of peasant movements: 1990–2005

The social trajectory of peasant movements from the mid 1980s to early 2000 was generally upward, followed by relative weakness from 2003 to mid- 2005. The upward trajectory was driven by greater ethnic-class consciousness especially among Indian communities leading to massive uprisings in Ecuador (CONAIE), armed resistance in Mexico (the EZLN—The Zapatista Army of National Liberation), and the peasant movements in Guerrero, the Cocaleros in Cochabomba and the Alto Plano in Bolivia and the coca farmers of Peru.

In Brazil, beginning in 1985 and continuing to 2002, the Rural Landless Workers Movement occupied thousands of latifundios and settled over 350,000 rural families in cooperatives and family farms. The successes of the peasant movements were not uniform. Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador, and Colombia suffered intense repression leading in some cases to severe diminution of mass activity.

Nevertheless, the major successes of the peasant movements in advancing their rural agenda of greater Indian autonomy and self-government, agrarian reform, state protection, and financing and opposition to ALCA, attracted attention from all political sectors. Washington under Bush (father and son) and Clinton promoted neo-liberalism through the militarization of Latin America through Plan Colombia, Plan Andino, and “anti-terrorist” policies.

The disintegration and discredit of neo-liberal regimes led to the emergence of so-called “center-left” political leaders and electoral coalitions. Until the late 1990s the peasant movements’ success was based on independent class politics using direct action, with tactical coalitions with other political forces. The rise of the “center-left” electoral politicians and their promises to “oppose” neo-liberalism led to damaging alliances for the peasant movements.

In Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and elsewhere, peasant movements allied themselves with Presidents and parties which, soon after the elections, embraced neo-liberal policies, agro-business strategies and repressive policies toward the peasant movements. The effects of this turn to electoral alliances were very damaging to the peasant movements and led to a decline in organization and activity. In Ecuador, CONAIE suffered a loss of confidence among its bases, divisions in the organization and a weakening in its capacity to mobilize on a national basis. In Bolivia, Evo Morales and his cocalero organization’s support for neo-liberal Carlos Mesa divided the mass movement and sustained the reactionary regime for a year, allowing for the reconsolidation of the weakened traditional parties. In Brazil, the MST supported the neo-liberal regime of Lula da Silva for over two years, during which time the agrarian reform agenda stagnated, land occupations were stalled, and agro-business prospered at the expense of the landless workers, family farmers, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the massive expansion of GM (genetically modified) farming by agro-exporters. By the year 2005, the political experiments in electoral politics led to a (temporary) three-year decline in the protagonism of the most powerful peasant-Indian movements. The lesson was clear: Electoral politics was not an effective vehicle for rural change, with the possible exception of Venezuela.

Extra-parliamentary alliances

Historical experiences over the past 25 years indicate that the most effective alliances and actions have involved “horizontal coalitions” engaged in extra-parliamentary actions. The examples are numerous and the contrasts with the failures of the electoral alliances are striking.

In Ecuador, CONAIE, supported by the major trade unions, was able to overthrow two neo-liberal regimes and temporarily limit the neo-liberal agenda. In contrast, when CONAIE allied itself with the electoral forces of Lucio Gutierrez, it suffered severe losses of social support and a regressive IMF program. In Bolivia, the peasant movements, cocaleros, and Indian organizations relying on a broad “horizontal” coalition of miners, urban poor and trade unionists of La Paz and Cochabamba, succeeded in overthrowing the repressive neo-liberal regime of Sanchez de Losada. Subsequently, the peasant movement was severely weakened when one of its key leaders, Parliamentary Deputy Evo Morales, supported the neo-liberal President Carlos Mesa, to further his ambitions for the Presidential elections of 2007.

While horizontal coalitions between peasant and urban organizations have produced positive results, they were not easy to come by. The MST in Brazil has been trying to build urban alliances for the last 20 years with mixed results. During the 1980s, when the trade union confederation CUT (General Workers Confederation) was formed and was based on factory delegates meeting in general assemblies, there were frequent mass mobilizations with the MST. During the 1990s and later, as the CUT became bureaucratized and dependent on tripartite social pacts, it was unwilling or unable to mobilize its bases in joint action with the MST.

Despite the CUT’s claim to 15 million affiliates, and its “radical” declarations, it could turn out only a few thousand demonstrators, mostly full-time functionaries, in contrast to the tens of thousands mobilized by the MST. In fact, MST leaders claimed that the progressive sectors of the Church (Pastoral Rural) demonstrated more practical solidarity than the CUT.

Venezuela is the only country where the peasant movements have achieved a kind of vertical and horizontal alliance. Much of the growth and organization of the peasant movement in Venezuela is the product of the policies of the Chávez government and its agrarian reform policies. The government has moved to promote co-operatives and family farmers to make Venezuela food self-sufficient. The key factor differentiating the state-peasant relationship is the class composition of the state and its leadership: Chávez has built a popular bloc to promote his ideology of a mixed economy based on social welfare financed by oil income.

There are several problems in the development of “horizontal alliances” and the creation of worker-peasant coalitions: (1) trade unions and urban community organizations have been weakened by the neo-liberal policies which have created a massive, fragmented “informal sector;” (2) trade unions have, in many cases, narrowed their focus to immediate wage and job issues instead of the larger political challenges affecting national struggles, like agrarian reform; (3) some trade union leaders have racist attitudes toward working with Indian organizations and leaders on an equal basis, or accepting the leadership of much more powerful peasant-Indian movements; (4) many of the urban poor neighborhoods are controlled by traditional political parties through patronage electoral machines, which limit their participation in joint actions with peasant movements. Occasionally this pattern is reversed, as is the case in Bolivia, where the urban neighborhood or barrio organizations in El Alto have shared leadership with the peasant movements.

Not all the problems in forming a worker-peasant alliance are on the side of urban social forces. In some cases, as in Peru and Colombia, peasant demands have focused on a single issue, coca growing, thus limiting the appeal to a particular set of peasant producers. In other cases, peasant organizations are divided because of electoral allegiances, as is the case of the cocaleros of Chapare, Bolivia, and undermine joint action with trade unions.

While recognizing the obstacles to urban-rural horizontal alliances, most of the militant peasant leaders are aware that national coalitions with urban allies are a necessary strategic goal in defeating neo-liberalism and formulating a pro-peasant policy.

Strategies of struggle

Many leftists have written off the strategic role of peasants and minimized their political impact because their activity contributes a small percentage of the GNP. These accounts speak of the marginalization or exclusion of the peasantry and landless workers, despite the fact that many still play a role in key agro-export sectors earning vital hard currency for imports and debt payments. The peasant movements and producers still provide a direct source of foreign exchange via coca and other export commodities and supply an important share of locally consumed food. There is substantial evidence that the direct action tactics of even so-called marginal and excluded peasant and landless workers can have a strategic impact on the realization of profits by many of the key sectors of the ruling class.

Marxist theorists argued for the centrality of the industrial proletariat in the revolutionary struggle on the basis of its strategic position in production and because of the social organization in the factory system. Peasants, we were told, are marginal to the central operation of capital and, as individual property holders, are atomized and subject to “individualistic” behavior.

Marxist theorists argued [that] peasants . . . are marginal to the central operation of capital.

Data from contemporary movements challenge these assumptions. In many countries, peasants have demonstrated a greater capacity for collective action and solidarity than many urban workers and frequently their actions are more broadly focused on national or class issues than the narrow wage demands of unionized industrial workers.

Peasant movements have developed a panoply of direct action tactics, including occupations of congressional and municipal buildings, large-scale marches, producers’ strikes and boycotts, barricades and road blockages. In many cases, peasant movements combine several forms of struggle—from direct action to negotiations and electoral politics. The cohesion of peasants comes from the community structure of village habitation, the maintenance of extended family linkages, the catastrophic threats from free market policies, eradication campaigns and forced expulsions.

Equally significant, specific forms of social action compensate for the relative structural weakness of peasants in the neo-liberal capitalist model. Massive, extensive, and prolonged road blockages prevent the circulation of export commodities by agro-mining and manufacturing enterprises and the realization of profits. While peasants may not play an essential role in capitalist production, they do play an essential role in the circulation of commodities and in the exchange process. Peasants’ strategic role in paralyzing circulation has the same impact as factory workers downing their tools and stopping production— both undermine capitalist profitability and lead to disaccumulation and crisis. Political intervention at the strategic locations in the circuit of capitalist reproduction has given some dynamic peasant movements a strategic role in the process of social transformation.


Peasant movements have played a decisive role in forcing the resignations of a series of corrupt rulers who were responsible for impoverishing the country, giving away natural resources and strategic sectors of the economy to foreign multinationals and indebting the country. They have also led the fight against genetically modified and chemically based agriculture promoted by Monsanto, in favor of ecologically sound cultivation. Peasant movements have led the struggle against fumigation of food crops and in defense of coca farming, an important source of family income, with a multiplier effect throughout the economy. Peasant leaders demand that Washington fight drugs by prosecuting its elite allies who process and traffic and the US banks that “wash” illegal drug profits. Peasant movements have been part of national coalitions against privatization legislation, US military bases and payment of the illegal foreign debt. Direct actions by peasant movements have delayed or blocked austerity programs promoted by the IMF.

Clearly, without peasant land occupations there would be no agrarian reform process in Venezuela today, as the wheels of bureaucratic change are slow and indecisive. Given the fact that no progressive agrarian legislation or executive decrees have been approved by any regime throughout Latin America for at least the last 20 years (except Venezuela under Chávez), direct action by peasant movements takes on a greater significance as the only vehicle for defending their claims to land, credit, markets, and protection against dumping.

Peasant movements’ positive achievements have come at a huge cost in human lives, injuries and violent repression. In Colombia alone, over 20,000 peasant activists, leaders and human rights supporters have been murdered by the terrorist US-backed military and paramilitary gangs, while over 3 million have been forcibly displaced by state violence. In Brazil, between 1995–2005, under Cardoso and Lula, over five-hundred peasant and landless workers and leaders and church activists have been assassinated by the military police and hired assassins of land owners. Over 90% of the crimes go unpunished.

The question of the state and political power, and political strategies to achieve the latter, remain as the leading challenges to the peasant movements. Peasant power has been most manifest as a negation of existing rulers and has been weakest in affirming a strategy for taking power. Even in cases where peasant movements have overthrown regimes, they were not prepared to rule; they handed power over to neo-liberal demagogues like Carlos Mesa in Bolivia and Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador.

Peasants have carried out significant protests and even achieved reforms but, lacking state power, these reforms have been reversed when the movements ebbed. Promises of reform in the heat of struggle by center-leftist rulers are broken and the reconstituted power of the bourgeoisie has counter-attacked with savage “counter-terrorist” strategies. Without a strategy for state power, the tendency is for even militant leaders to step aside and let ambitious petit bourgeois politicians take their place and, following an initial period of demagogic and symbolic concessions, to proceed in the footsteps of their neo-liberal predecessors.

Some revolutionary theorists argue that the problem of taking state power requires building a mass movement from below, forming coalitions with urban groups and mass organizations and developing a series of concrete struggles for reforms which build toward the creation of “dual power.” These are difficult and complex processes that depend on local circumstances for their concrete realization. Local governance and political leadership in mass struggles are confidence-building measures. When asked why peasants did not “take power” in Bolivia and Ecuador at the height of the uprisings, peasant leaders told me they “were not ready” and “did not feel confident to govern.” Yet everywhere peasant leaders and activists affirm that establishing a regime by and for the peasantry, and against imperialism, is a question of life and death—of survival and growth, or displacement and destitution.

James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). He can be reached at: jpetras@binghamton.edu


This article reflects repeated field research, including interviews and participant observation with the following movements between 1992–2005: CONAIE (Ecuador 2002, 2003); Cocaleros (Bolivia 1993, 1996, 2003); EZLN (Mexico 1995, 1996); MST (Brazil every year 1992–2005); Federacíon Nacional Campesino (Paraguay 1998, 1999); MOCASE (Argentina 1995); Confederacíon Campesina (Peru 2004); Federacíon Campesino (El Salvador 1999); Federacíon Ezquiel Zamora (Venezuela 2004); Via Campesina (Brasilia 1997). This article draws from our forthcoming book: James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and the State: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina (London: Pluto 2005, October); James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Movimientos Sociales y el Estado: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia y Argentina ( Buenos Aires: Lumen, Noviembre 2005).


1. James Petras & Henry Veltmeyer, Are Latin American Peasant Movements Still a Force for Change? Some New Paradigms Revisited, The Journal of Peasant Studies vol 28, #2. January 2001 pp. 83–118

2. Wilder Robles, “The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil,” The Journal of Peasant Studies vol 28, #2. January 2001 pp. 146–161

3. Roger Batra, Agrarian Structure and Political Power in Mexico (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University 1993)

4. Luis Macas, “Diez Años del levantamiento del Inti Raymi de Junio 1990: un balance preliminary Boletin Mensual Instituto Cientifico de Culturas Indigena: Quito 2000

5. Joao Pedro Stedile & Sergio Frei, A luta pele terra no Brazil (Sao Paola, Scritta 1993)

6. Tom Brass (ed) Latin American Peasants (special issue) Journal of Peasant Studies vol. 29, nos. 3 & 4, April–July 2002.

7. James Petras & Henry Veltmeyer, “The Peasantry and the State in Latin America: A Troubled Past, an Uncertain Future” in Tom Brass, ed. Latin American Peasants (2002).

[12 aug 05]

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