Members of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) take part in a march along the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, on May 8, 2014. Photo via Reginaldo Castro/AFP/Getty Images
On May 14, João Paulo Rodrigues, a leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), met with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The two men discussed ways in which Latin American social movements might help Wikileaks. Following their two-hour discussion, the leader told Assange, "If you need asylum in Brazil, we offer our land settlements." Assange responded with a hug.
The day after the meeting with Rodrigues, Wikileaks tweeted, “Brazil's MST offers asylum to Julian #Assange in autonomous region.”
Now, as everyone knows, Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (Ecuador has granted Assange asylum) after Sweden called for his arrest following serious sexual assault charges, which Assange claims are a ruse designed to pave the way for his extradition to the US. If Assange leaves the embassy he will be arrested; the embassy is patrolled 24 hours a day by police. It’s not clear if, or how, he’ll ever leave.
If the escape-to-Ecuador plans fall through—and with Assange in Washington’s cross hairs, it's likely they will—what would asylum on an MST settlement mean for the Wikileaks head honcho? Would he become a farmer? Would he have an internet connection? What, exactly, is an MST “autonomous region”?
Guided by the slogan "Occupy, Resist, Produce," Brazil’s MST is the Western hemisphere’s largest social movement, mostly composed of farmers and working people who take over large plots of land and live on them. In its three decades of existence, MST members have taken over nearly 1,000 farms, most of which were left unused by rich industrialists or ranchers. Today, these once-empty plots are home to roughly 150,000 landless families, who grow crops and live on them. They’re like big rural communes.
Brazilian law says that the government can expropriate unused land and give it to landless farmers. MST activists have used this legal opening to first occupy the land, and then fight for legal recognition to own it.
After taking over the land, in many cases members of the MST develop cooperative farms and build houses, schools, and health clinics. They manage the land sustainably and collectively, and have inspired similar movements around the world. Their politics and existence is a constant challenge to Brazil’s booming large-scale agro-industry and staggering levels of unequal land distribution: roughly 1 percent of the population owns 45 percent of the land in Brazil.
Beyond their decades-long fight for land and land reform, from the settlements to the government, the MST has also been a voice for democracy and human rights, standing up for social justice causes worldwide, including the Palestinian movement for statehood. Their support for Assange is an extension of this international political presence.
“Assange is a fighter against imperialism, and we stand with his cause,” Rodrigues, the MST leader who met Assange in London, told the Ecuadorian newspaper El Telégrafo after their meeting. The MST leader pledged that his organization and others would unite to pressure the world’s governments to allow Assange a safe passage to Ecuador. The leader said the MST would also gather signatures for a petition to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Assange’s freedom and mobilize on June 19, the day marking two years since Assange entered the embassy. In return for this support, Assange said Wikileaks would spread the news about MST activities through their global network.
Of course, the offer of asylum remains largely symbolic.
The MST “ultimately lacks the authority to grant asylum [because] only the Brazilian government [legally] has the power to do so,” Thomas Becker, an international human rights lawyer familiar with the MST, told me recently. He continued: “Considering [Brazil’s] unwillingness to provide asylum to Edward Snowden…who has much stronger support in the Brazilian government than Assange, it is unlikely [the Brazilian government] will grant Assange asylum.”
But we should remember that the MST has two members in parliament so maybe, someday, they’ll influence the Brazilian government to grant Assange asylum. A long shot, sure, but the MST is all about making the impossible come true.
How would Assange’s life look on an MST settlement if indeed his asylum there did become a reality? The MST was unable to respond to interview requests for this article but MST expert and anthropology Professor David Meek of the University of Alabama outlined some important details for VICE.
What kind of security would one of the world’s most wanted hackers have on a settlement? Meek says, “MST settlements frequently have their own security patrols that form as organic collectives.” But given the many threats against Assange, and the sketchy legal grounding of the asylum, “the quality of that security is doubtful.”
Would Assange have to become a farmer? Meek says it would be unlikely, as not all people on a settlement dedicate themselves to farming. “Assange would likely continue his role as a public intellectual and a whistleblower. The form this would take might change, and he would probably become involved in some of the MST's other initiatives, such as their communication brigade.”
Meek said that the infamous leaker of government documents could even enjoy “remarkably good internet connectivity” depending on what settlement he ended up at.
Maybe Assange could help the MST publicize their latest venture: as the World Cup looms over Brazil, the MST has recently partnered with a homeless workers’ movement in São Paulo to occupy a vacant lot near the $445 million stadium hosting the opening game. Sportswriter Dave Zirin, author of the new book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, reports that some 10,000 people have occupied the lot. He writes that the “belief that the lion’s share of Cup expenditures are for foreign consumption, while the disruption and pain will be shouldered by Brazil’s masses, is widespread.”
Near a cooking fire in the encampment, trash collector Danilo Vieira Gomes told the Los Angeles Times, "Only a small part of the government has ever helped us, and the rest is divided between the rich and the corrupt. If this wasn't serious, we wouldn't be sleeping out here."