Brazil's new leader takes an unlikely global role

President da Silva speaks to political and business leaders in Switzerland.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had a message Sunday for the world's political and business leaders meeting Davos, Switzerland, at the annual World Economic Forum.

"It is absolutely necessary to build the world economic order to meet the demands of billions of people who live at the margins," Mr. da Silva said, urging rich countries to declare "war on hunger."

This call for attention to social issues is not surprising coming from a former union leader and socialist. But the fact that he would be making it to the world's elite on an international stage is unexpected.

When he took office on Jan. 1, after more than two decades as the leader of Brazil's left-of-center Workers' Party, most people thought the man known as Lula would concentrate his efforts on resolving domestic issues. The former shoeshine boy speaks no foreign languages and had shown no particular aptitude, or interest, in foreign affairs.

Now though, his trip to Davos - coming on the heels of a stop at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the anticapitalist answer to the Davos meeting - shows that Lula is hoping the developed world will hear his message as clearly as the developing one, and perhaps even embrace him as the man capable of bridging the gap between the two. The only sitting president to attend both weekend summits, Lula has surprised politicians and analysts with vigorous international forays that have given Brazil a much higher profile, particularly in its own backyard.

Brazil needs "to assume its greatness," Lula said on a visit to Ecuador earlier this month, the first foreign trip of his presidency. "I find it incredible that all the other South American countries see Brazil as a natural leader for the continent. Brazil was the only one who for 500 years didn't see that or want to do anything about it."

Not all its neighbors were keen to see Brazil become the region's dominant power. That was partly because the former Portuguese colony's distinct culture, language, and history set it apart from its Hispanic neighbors; and partly because other Latin American leaders were reluctant to see Brazil, the nation with the largest population and economy in the region, become too strong.

Lula's predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, made some moves to change that, playing active roles in ending a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador in 1995 and also by discreetly helping Paraguay solve its political problems a few years later. In August 2000, Mr. Cardoso hosted South America's first presidential summit.

Lula has taken up the baton, primarily with troubled neighbors Venezuela and Argentina. He has extended a hand to Argentina as it tries to recover from the worst economic crisis in its history, offering to rework a regional trade agreement and even enter into talks on a common currency and joint parliament.

Even more enthusiastic, however, has been his involvement in Venezuela, where opponents of President Hugo Chávez are eight weeks into a national strike aimed at toppling him. Lula was instrumental in creating of the "group of friends," six nations (Brazil, Chile, Spain, Portugal, the United States, and Mexico) that hope find a peaceful way out of the crisis.

Although he objected to the inclusion of the US and Spain in the group - an objection he later dropped - Mr. Chávez has responded favorably to Lula, flying to Brazil to meet with the man he considers an ally. But he has not secured Lula's unfettered support. Lula remains impartial, telling those wanting to oust Chávez that their actions must be made within the Constitution, while at the same time counseling the Venezuelan leader that he must negotiate with his opponents for a peaceful solution.

Lula's handling of the situation has given him and his fledgling administration some international credibility.

"The [Workers' Party] has made it very clear it is a social democratic party in the making," says Riordan Roett, a Brazil expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. "They want nothing to do with dictatorship or authoritarianism or anticonstitutional moves. And while [Lula] politically and psychologically identifies more with [Fidel] Castro, [Ecuadorean President Lucio] Gutierrez, and Chávez ... he realizes very well that he has to have a very pragmatic and shrewd foreign policy."

Mr. Roett and other experts acknowledge that the US is probably not overjoyed at Lula's close relationship with Mr. Castro, or his willingness to engage other presidents, like Chávez or the leftist Mr. Gutierrez, who have never hidden their dislike of US policy and influence.

Some, like Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, have even gone as far as to say that Lula may have posed as a moderate in order to win the election and then form, with Chávez and Castro, a Latin American axis.

Lula's words and actions since taking power call in question that prediction, and with President Bush paying little attention to the region - the administration did not send high-ranking officials to the inaugurations of either Lula or Gutierrez - the way may be open for Lula to continue carving out a leadership role.

"Brazil has always had good diplomats," says Mauro Silva, a union leader attending the six-day Porto Alegre summit, which is due to wrap up tomorrow. "Lula knows how to talk to people. It was a skill he learned as a trade-union leader. He could be a mediator ... and a bridge between [the right and left]."

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