An Ambivalent Legacy: Cardoso and Land Reform


Few policies implemented during the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil provoked as much disagreement as land reform. While officials claimed to be undertaking a virtual revolution in the countryside, activists derided the program as little more than a palliative. Assessment of its extent and character drawing on a variety of sources indicates that many of the criticisms are on the mark. Only a small percentage of the landless population benefited, and those who did often lacked even minimal infrastructure or support services. At the same time, Cardoso settled more landless than all of his predecessors combined. His reform pales next to the major reforms in Latin American history, but it was one of the most ambitious programs carried out under democratic conditions that was not later reversed by a coup d'état. Cardoso's progress in this area was partly a result of two aspects of the political context at the start of his government: his own personal image as a progressive reformer and the growing strength of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Movement of Landless Rural Workers—MST). However, chance events also played a key role. Particularly important were two massacres of land reform protestors that occurred early in his first term, thrusting the land issue onto the political agenda at an opportune moment.


Political Science

Document Type





Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, land reform, Latin America, MST

Publication Date


Journal Title

Latin American Perspectives