- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

BRASILIA, Brazil, Feb. 24 (UPI) — After a successful weekend on the reform front, Brazil's president asked the nation Monday for optimism about the economy and reaffirmed his administration's commitment to eradicating hunger.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reassured Brazilians that "things will happen in time" to spur the economy's growth, but South America's largest nation needs to concentrate its efforts on feeding some 43 million starving people.

The program — dubbed "Zero Fome," or Zero Hunger, has been Lula's top priority since he took office Jan 1. The goal of the program is to provide some 10 million Brazilians with three meals a day over the next few years while seeking to make impoverished people self-sufficient.

"Everything can wait, anything can wait," said Lula, referring to an economy experiencing the impact of depressed world markets.

"But those who are hungry cannot wait. But the economy will grow. I wake up every day more optimistic, and nothing makes me lose hope."

His optimism was tempered with anxiety about the hardship that would result from a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq. But instead of dwelling on concerns over the uncertainty surrounding the world's ninth-largest economy, the leftist leader directed attention to the relative success of the Fome Zero campaign.

"While we cannot make the economy to grow and generate the jobs we want it to generate, we want to say thank you very much to those that contributed food to those who are without," he said from the capital, Brasilia.

Despite his optimism about an eventual economic rebound, local and foreign investors are fretting over the sagging markets and currency. Their worry is especially acute about the possibility that a Middle East confrontation might last longer than a month, analysts say.

Lula's upbeat remarks follow a weekend of successful talks with Brazilian governors to pursue other reforms that have formed the cornerstone of his administration's agenda in its first 100 days. He was able to hammer out a deal with 27 state governors to reform pensions, a cornerstone of his political reforms.

In a document dubbed the "Brasilia letter," leaders also said they'd try to end interstate bickering over excise and sales tax exemptions.

The results of the meeting signify a victory for Lula, since he apparently was able to transcend party lines to put forth a reform agenda for Congress as it embarks on its 2003 agenda.

(Reported by Carmen Gentile in Sao Paulo.)

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