WASHINGTON (Press Associates, Inc., PAI) – Declaring “my victory is a symbol for all those who live from labor, Brazilian President-elect Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva warned of challenges ahead for his new government, but predicted success “because labor has built something different in Brazil.”

Speaking to a cheering, chanting crowd that jammed the lobby of AFL-CIO headquarters on Dec. 10, da Silva said Brazil must battle high unemployment and the fact that 43 million Brazilians go to bed hungry.

But, da Silva said, it can be done. “We have built something different in Brazil. Labor has a commitment with the womens’ movement, some of the intellectuals, the progressive sectors of the evangelical and Catholic churches and certain business sectors that are thinking about the future of our country,” he said.

Da Silva takes office Jan. 1. He won the presidency of South America’s most populous and most industrially important nation in a runoff election in which, he said, “52 million people cast their votes for hope.”

That figure – representing more than 60 percent of all votes cast – exceeds the margin won by any presidential candidate anywhere in the world who ran in a contested election, save for Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Da Silva also takes over a nation with a large foreign debt, pressures from international lending institutions to cut spending, 20 percent unemployment – 50 percent in his home region, the nation’s poorest – and disagreements with the Bush administration over the Fair Trade Area of the Americas. During his visit, da Silva also met President Bush.

Standing before a flag with a large red star superimposed on blue, yellow and green horizontal stripes, on a white background, Da Silva said he sought his nation’s highest office because he believes “in the possibility of change. My first commitment is to 24 hours a day to end hunger,” he said. “It is not possible to go on with the present situation.”

Da Silva said, “Brazil is an exceptional country, with excellent resources and marvelous people” and past bad leadership. He did not name names, but the army ran Brazil for much of the 40 years since its last liberal president.

In recounting his reasons for running for president, da Silva said, “First, because nothing came easily for me … Second, for many years I was a victim of all kinds of prejudice,” a reference to anti-worker policies and racial tensions facing Afro-Brazilians.

But he also ran to offer hope to workers no matter where they live. “I want to say to all the workers of my country and elsewhere: No person should be measured by the number of [college] degrees they have, but by their character.”

Da Silva said he only has “a certificate as a lathe operator,” but that, despite “sociological textbooks,” the Brazilian election showed someone with a working-class background “could reach the presidency.” Da Silva said he had “to do the right thing, because if I don’t, it will convey the idea that workers don’t know how to govern.”

Pointing to the fact that the AFL-CIO supported him when Brazil’s military rulers sentenced him to a three-year jail term in 1980, da Silva said: “The responsibility to govern Brazil is not only in the hands of one metal worker from Brazil. It is also in the hands of American workers.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, wearing an ear-to-ear smile, extended that hand. “Brothers and sisters, it is a great pleasure to have a president we can call ‘brother’ with us today.” Sweeney pledged that the U.S. labor movement would work to help turn da Silva’s hope into reality.