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Brazilian Dialogue

New Brazilian president is of the people

In a recent Dialogue, I erroneously put Pope Paul VI at the Puebla meeting of Latin American bishops in 1979. It should have been the Medellin meeting of that same body in 1968. With age such "senior moments" are a more frequent occurrence. Paul VI was keen to go to the Medellin conference to establish with his friend and collaborator Dom Helder Camara a firm yes to the church's preferential option for the poor. His trip there was high drama as popes hadn't hitherto travelled abroad in such a fashion. *********

Caetes is a tiny povoado (from povo -- the people), a hamlet or "people place" north of Garanhuns in Pernambuca. Friends of mine visited it over this past Christmas simply to get the feel of the place that gave birth to Lula, Brazil's new president.

They write: "It has just one street, a path between two rows of houses. Well, not houses, exactly, because on each side of the road is just one long, low building, divided door, window, door, window.

"We mused long on this wonder -- that out of this milieu, an environment that has strangled and suffocated millions, could arise so firm, yet gentle, so far-seeing and wise a leader."

Lula's relatives still live in Caetes and Lula rented a bus to bring many of them to his inauguration Jan. 1. In Brasilia they will stay with him on his acreage. He has refused to occupy the presidential palace as being foreign to his worldview.

Lula's security guards warn him not to mix freely among the crowds, but the people want to touch him, to hug him, and he responds affectionately to all of them.

"I don't fear the people, the povo," he says. "What I would fear would be isolation from the people."

Before going to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum beginning Jan. 31, Lula went to Porto Alegre where thousands of NGOs were holding an alternative meeting. This world leader was in Porto Alegre to demonstrate his solidarity with the povo. When two days later he spoke in Davos, his audience there gave him a spontaneous ovation. Was it because he was seconding their aims? No. His speech in Davos reflected rather the conference in Porto Alegre. Its title: Another World Is Possible.

Lula has now completed one month in office and his approval rating is 83 per cent, a level never before achieved in Brazil.

His official program for year one of his presidency is called, simply, Hunger Zero. His aim is to make sure Brazil's hungry millions of poor get three meals daily just as do their middle class fellow citizens.

"I'm giving them fish for starters," he says, "because it's an emergency -- the people are hungry. But along with the fish I'll give them a rod because in the long term they must support themselves."

The implications of "giving them a rod" are intriguing. For example, he hasn't yet mentioned land reform, but land is the most basic "rod" the people need to be able to support themselves.

A gesture that stunned Brazilians (among whom the machismo is firmly rooted) was his acknowledgment at the inauguration of his wife Mariza as his companheira, his valued partner. The women of Brazil especially were heartened by this.

Al Gerwing