Brazil, the world’s 10th largest economy, has adopted an increasingly assertive role in world politics as it promotes Latin American unity, justice for the poor world especially in regard to food supplies, and Brazil’s place in the global market economy. The recent travels of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president since January 2003, make the point.

Growing up poor, lacking formal education, Lula moved from steel workers’ strikes to helping found and organize the Brazilian Workers Party, the grassroots, leftist coalition movement under whose banner he became president.

On June 27, Lula was in Caracas meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Quarterly meetings between the two have led to accords on energy, agricultural development, trade, and cooperation in science and education. This time they discussed the processing of Venezuelan natural gas at a new Brazilian refinery, melding of electricity grids, Venezuelan financial help for a new Brazilian oil refinery, Venezuelan import of Brazilian soy and poultry products, and Brazilian agricultural expertise as part of Venezuela’s campaign for food sovereignty.

Lula and Chavez discussed Venezuela’s prospects for becoming a full member of the South American trade group Mercosur and the future of the new South American Defense Council, seen as a coordinating and conflict resolution body.
Trade between Venezuela and Brazil reached $5 billion last year, a 22 percent one-year hike. Chavez told reporters, “Our countries are set to become driving forces” in Latin American integration.

On July 1, Lula assumed the rotating presidency of Mercosur at a regular meeting of the trade group in Tucuman, Argentina. In his acceptance speech he noted that “Mercosur is the principal promoter of economic development,” adding, “We resolve to double our bets with more integration” because “commerce is crucial to the economy of integration.” Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina are full Mercosur members; six other nations are associate members.

Lula articulated Mercosur’s rejection of Europe’s recently adopted “return directive” under which migrants without authorizing documents are to be imprisoned. “Again,” he said, “the cold winds of xenophobia are blowing with misguided responses to challenges faced by the economy and society.”

At the G8 Summit of the world’s richest nations held in Hokkaido, Japan July 7-9, Lula led in discussions of the burgeoning world food shortage. He spoke on behalf of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa, the “outreach five” group of nations present at recent G8 meetings.

He called upon the UN Food and Agricultural Organization to look into causes of rising food prices, which he attributed to speculation. For five years, according to Lula, “the world has been eating [food] reserves. If reserves are eaten and not saved then one day, they’re going to run out.”

Lula dissented from a recent World Bank report claiming that 75 percent of the price rise is due to diversion of food crops to bio-fuel production. Brazilian sugar cane and U.S. corn account for 70 percent of the world’s bio-fuel production.

In Vietnam on July 10-11, Lula and Vietnamese officials discussed trade, investment, agriculture, and cooperation in vocational training and infrastructure development.
Over 40 representatives of Brazil’s banking, agriculture, aviation and energy sectors joined Lula at a Vietnam-Brazil Business Forum. Trade between the two countries has quadrupled since 2004.

The next stop was East Timor, a nation sharing both colonizer and language with Brazil. Lula offered President Jose Ramos-Horta Brazilian assistance in agriculture, fisheries and judicial administration. Before departing for Indonesia, nemesis of East Timor since its invasion in 1975, Lula assured the nation’s parliament, ‘East Timor is a sovereign nation and worthy of our support.”

In Indonesia, Lula and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discussed bio-fuels, agreeing to share knowledge on bio-fuel technology. Indonesia is now the world’s top palm oil producer. Lula advised his host to regard the fuel crisis as “a great opportunity,” rather than just a problem. Food shortages caused by bio-fuel production can be remedied, he suggested, by listening to the world’s poor: “Ask us to produce more and we’ll do it because we have the competence to do so.”

President Yudhoyono expressed his backing for Brazil to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.