Brazil President Rails Against Poverty

By Henry Chu

Los Angeles Times

January 27, 2005

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Calling it a matter of international security, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva today exhorted poor countries and thousands of activists gathered here to put pressure on rich nations to do more to eradicate global poverty.

But even as he addressed delegates to the World Social Forum, an annual conference of activists and thinkers from across the globe, a determined group of about 50 radical protesters heckled the leader of Latin America's largest country. They ridiculed him as a traitor to the left wing causes he espoused in the past.

"Dump Lula!" they chanted, in a scene unimaginable two years ago, when he was given a hero's welcome as Brazil's first working-class president. Supporters responded by shouting down the dissenters.

The tumult overshadowed what was to be a mass rally to launch an initiative by the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, an international coalition of charities and other civic organizations. Lula, as the biggest marquee name at the conference, was expected to join the coalition in urging wealthy nations to cancel foreign debts, establish fairer trade agreements and fulfill aid pledges they have made.

"The rich must understand that we will never have a peaceful world unless we tackle poverty," Lula told an audience of several thousand people who packed a sports arena.

But over boisterous booing from protesters — and to the annoyance of some of the event's organizers — Lula used most of his half-hour speech to defend his domestic policies, while cheering members of his Workers' Party turned his appearance into something resembling a campaign rally.

Rounding on critics who complain that he has obediently followed Wall Street's orders and pushed through reforms inimical to workers and the poor, Lula pointed to economic indicators showing impressive gains in employment and exports in the second half of 2004.

"One day, they'll mature and we'll be waiting with open arms to welcome them," Lula said in a jab at the hecklers, most of them young people, whom he characterized as "sons and daughters of the Workers' Party who rebelled."

Planners of the morning rally had hoped Lula would devote more of his time to championing their new anti-poverty drive, unveiled a day after French President Jacques Chirac urged political and financial leaders gathered for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to take stronger action against poverty and disease.

"We planned this a lot before" the Davos convention, said Salil Shetty, director of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals Campaign. "We believe that 2005 is the year when we have to [make] a massive breakthrough on poverty."

Lula, for whom hunger was a boyhood reality, is a global symbol of the battle against want and "the voice of developing countries," Shetty added.

But hours before Lula delivered his speech, there were signs that the Brazilian leader might become the main event, rather than the message he was to convey. Keen to head off an embarrassing appearance that garnered more jeers than cheers, he and his aides invited conference organizers to a meeting Wednesday night in order to make a defense of his first two years in office, the daily O Globo reported.

This morning, busloads of Workers' Party members, in red T-shirts proclaiming them to be "100% Lula," arrived at the arena and were allowed inside before most members of the public. Scattered strategically in different parts of the arena, they formed a cheering squad while a warmup band tried to rally support for the beleaguered president.

"We were worried that this would happen, which is why we told people to get here early," one of the event's organizers said. "It's a pity, really."

After speaking here, Lula was scheduled to fly to the Swiss Alps for the Davos forum, whose participants he once disdainfully called "those men."

"As the president of a poor country, I don't need to meet with another poor country to discuss poverty," Lula said. Better to press the concerns and needs of developing nations before the developed world, he said.

The World Social Forum, now in its fifth year, was created as a leftist counterweight to the Davos gathering. This year's conference has attracted more than 100,000 participants from dozens of countries for six days of workshops and seminars on issues ranging from environmental conservation to reparations for victims of Latin America's right-wing dictatorships. Speakers include Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"Change needs to be made," said Kati Ross, 31, a Chicagoan who lives in Chile, attending for the second time. "And it's inspiring to see over 100,000 people who also feel that way."