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Brazil Movement Leads Looters

May 22, 1998

GRAVATA, Brazil (AP) _ Word spread quickly through this outback town: food handouts tomorrow morning at the farmworkers union. Get there early.

Mara Fatima dos Santos, plastic grocery bag tucked under her arm, showed up along with hundreds of neighbors driven to despair by a six-month drought, but the food never came.

After two hours, an organizer said they would have to loot it from a local supermarket. As leaders of the group kicked in the store’s steel doors, police arrived with machine guns and turned them away.

``I was tricked,″ Santos said. ``It’s not right to take what’s not yours. But when your five children are crying because they have no food, you’ll do anything.″

Supermarkets and government warehouses have been looted sporadically during previous droughts in Brazil’s chronically dry northeast.

But with an estimated 10 million people now facing starvation, the lootings are being organized on a large scale by the Landless Rural Workers Movement _ Brazil’s largest grass-roots opposition movement, known by its Portuguese initials of MST.

Founded in 1984, MST has outgrown its original goal of pressuring the government to speed up land reform by taking over idle property. Now, it wants to be the voice for the millions of Brazil’s poor.

Keeping a high profile by leading marches, lootings and land invasions on unused ranches, the group’s anti-government message has struck a chord as Brazil’s economy stagnates and unemployment rises.

``This is just the beginning,″ said Jaime Amorim, an MST leader. ``The worst is yet to come.″

Amorim said he wants to frighten the local ruling elite to pressure the government to help the victims of the drought.

The wave of lootings has produced dramatic television news footage that has forced Brazilians to confront a source of embarrassment _ their poor, backward northeast, where a tiny elite has clung to power for centuries.

Over the years, billions of dollars in federal aid has been funneled to the northeast, but nothing seems to change. Local politicians even welcome a drought in an election year like this, because emergency food rations are used to buy votes.

The landless movement wants to subvert that tradition _ even if that requires subterfuge to attract followers.

In this predominantly Roman Catholic country, the Church has emerged as an important ally to the MST, with bishops saying that looting to stave off hunger is neither a crime nor a sin.

``When people are hungry and desperate, they grab what they don’t have,″ said Archbishop Marcelo Pinto Carvalheira of the northeastern city of Joao Pessoa. ``And this is in line with Catholic morality.″

His comments drew a sharp government reaction.

``Those who organize the looting are bandits and must be arrested,″ said President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, whose Justice Department has filed charges against 16 movement leaders for inciting violence.

Still, the pressure has had an effect. The government has earmarked $123 million to send emergency food rations to more than 1,200 towns and to create work teams to build dams and wells. A hot line was also set up for residents to denounce the political manipulation of aid.

The movement plans to expand its attacks _ and become more politically active by endorsing candidates of the leftist Workers Party in October’s national elections.

``We plan to tackle all the issues _ urban and rural _ long ignored by the federal and local governments,″ Amorim said. ``Issues such as health, education, basic sanitation and the homeless.″

Looting helps to win support.

``The MST is using any pretext it can to fill the power vacuum,″ says sociologist Jose de Souza Martins of the University of Sao Paulo. ``And by not having any coherent social policy, the government is making it easy for the MST to take on this new and expanded role.″

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