- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Feb. 5 (UPI) — Brazil set in motion this week its much-vaunted effort to eradicate hunger among the nation’s poor.

Dubbed “Fome Zero” (Zero Hunger), the brainchild of Brazil’s new, leftist leader has won praise both here and abroad as a noble humanitarian effort of epic proportions.

After winning a landslide victory in late October, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva used his first official news conference to introduce an idea that was surely years, if not decades, in the making.

Then and there, the former metalworker and union leader, who is no stranger to poverty himself, introduced the world to Fome Zero’s goal of providing three square meals to an estimated 45 million Brazilians who don’t get enough to eat.

The man Brazilians call “Lula,” without the pretensions of a “president” to proceed him, appeared worn by months of campaigning — his fourth try at the presidency — yet galvanized by the opportunity to bring his vision of full bellies across the board to South America’s largest nation.

Since then, the everyman president who grew up in a Sao Paulo slum and dropped out of school after the fifth grade to shine shoes has been stumping for food and funds to make his vision a reality.

Between winning the presidency and assuming office on Jan. 1, Lula has been busily setting up a strategy for conquering hunger, while urging every Brazilian to join in the fight by donating food so that it could be distributed in federal food centers throughout the country.

The Lula administration put the challenge to Brazilian business to also do its part, searching for 1,000 companies that could chip in to help bring the program to their respective neighborhoods.

After much planning and a few pitfalls along the way, the Fome Zero finally got off the ground this week. Though the beginning was an inauspicious one — a single ill-funded distribution center — the gesture signified the beginning of a magnanimous gesture.

So naturally, some people hate it.

Critics say the program is overly reactionary, that poverty and starvation aren’t nearly as bad as Lula make them out to be and that the project is ill-conceived and poorly managed. Fome Zero has also come under some fire for indulging in the type of populist ideals that prompted the military to seize power in 1964.

While it’s true that Lula’s numbers on poverty don’t agree with other estimates — one government agency sets the number of starving Brazilians at around 23 million — that surely doesn’t mean all is well.

Even if only 13 percent of 175 million go to bed writhing with hunger pangs every night, populist or not, it’s time to do something about it.

And in doing so, Lula answers his critics with his trademark smile backed up by a labor activist’s determination to balance the scales of justice.

Instead of railing against those who have condemned the project as a government-sponsored charity, he has been busily reminding folks that Fome Zero is more than just about handouts.

Indulging in the adage “teach a man to fish and he’ll never go hungry,” he has attempted to assure cantankerous critics that food distribution is just the first step of a greater goal of asserting Brazil’s presence in the region and the world.

Food first, then the lessons in self-reliance, Lula assures his detractors.

Meanwhile, as the world’s ninth-largest economy and a nation its neighbors often look to for guidance, Lula has put Brazil on the world stage by first playing a role in assisting neighboring Venezuela thrash out its labor strike woes.

Then last month, as the only world leader to attend both the Economic and World Social forums, Lula called on world leaders mired in talk of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to follow Brazil’s example and focus their efforts on ending hunger worldwide.

While the message may have fallen on deaf ears in the Saddam Hussein-obsessed Bush administration, it struck a chord with some European officials who called for the EU to form its own hunger eradication program.

Now, with a handful of successful international appearances under his belt and widespread support around the globe for Fome Zero, Lula is getting set for a showdown with the United States over its proposed hemispheric trade bloc.

The Brazilian leader has condemned the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement as annexation politics by the United States rather than an attempt to eliminate barriers to trade and investment among 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere by 2005.

The bloc won’t become a reality without Lula’s OK, even despite a snide suggestion by one Bush administration official that Brazil could always form trade relations with Antarctica if it won’t join the FTAA.

With popularity at home and a positive image abroad, Lula appears to have an upper hand on a White House that hasn’t spent much time following up on promises to pay more attention to Latin America than previous administrations.

In a matter of months, Brazil went from being just another Third World nation with a blue-collar president to regional powerbroker capable of calling the shots when it comes to negotiating trade with the United States.

And it all started with the idea of getting people enough to eat.

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