Porto Alegre, Brazil
Friday Night

The highpoint of this year’s World Social Forum was reached earlier this evening when newly elected Brazilian president Luiz Ignacio “Lula” Da Silva showed up to address an outdoor crowd of as many as 75,000 cheering supporters. Accompanied by seventeen of his cabinet ministers, this was the socialist president’s first visit to this city of 1.2 million since he formally took office on January 1.

Lula arrived before the sea of waving flags and cheering voices on his way to Davos, Switzerland, where he was invited to deliver an address to the World Economic Forum, the yearly gathering of the globe’s corporate and political elite. (The Social Forum held here in Brazil was founded three years ago as a “people’s” alternative to the Davos meetings.)

Lula, who as a child worked as a bootblack, dropped out of school, and then as a metal worker led strikes against Brazil’s military dictatorship, went on to found the leftist Workers Party in 1979–a unique amalgam of Marxist, Trotskyist, Catholic and democratic populist currents. Last fall he was elected President with a resounding 61 percent of the votes.

Speaking in a simple, conversational style, he told his crowd of supporters tonight that his new government was committed to reforming a “global economic system in which some people eat five times a day and others eat only once every five days.” At one point in his speech when referring to children who go hungry at night, the new Brazilian president’s voice wavered on tears.

Openly recognizing that Brazil is saddled with crushing debt and onerous obligations to international financial institutions like the IMF, Lula said that while he “would not cede an inch” on his campaign promises of reform, progress would nevertheless be achieved “cautiously.” There was a smattering of hisses from the radical fringes of the crowd when he pronounced that word–but they were drowned out by thousands who throatily roared the trademark sing-song slogan “Olé! Olé! Ola! Lu-La! Lu-La!”

Lula’s popularity is downright contagious in Brazil: Latin America’s most powerful economy but one of the most unequal societies in the world. Lula is the first President in Brazilian history who looks, talks and indeed is of the bottom half of the population. All around the Port Do Sol amphitheater where he appeared tonight, a crop of what you might call “Lula Stores” mushroomed, busily selling Lula T-shirts, Lula calendars, Lula key chains, even Lula mouse pads, as well as stacks of the Workers Party red-and-gold flags.

“I know that my election has raised hopes not only among you, but also among the entire international left,” Lula said in conclusion, “and that makes me even more aware of the heavy responsibilities I now bear.” As Lula was finishing his half-hour speech, the crowd began to shout “Fica! Fica!” Stay! Stay! I’d love to see an American presidential candidate pull that off on the stump.

Earlier in the day thousands of delegates attended the first full day of the third annual World Social Forum crowding into a panoply of dozens–more like scores–of conferences, panel discussions, workshops and lectures on just about every imaginable aspect of globalization. With the threat of imminent war in Iraq weighing heavily over the conference, the most heavily attended events were those that focused on militarization. Thousands jammed into a local arena to hear speakers like author Tariq Ali analyze the Bush Administration’s plans for the Middle East.

In another roundtable discussion, international trade activists, including Martin Khor of Malaysia and Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, outlined the high stakes in play at the next ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, scheduled to take place this September in Cancun, Mexico. Over the next few days activists and organizers here will be informally networking, developing joint plans for mass demonstrations against the WTO meeting as well as strategies for opposing the looming Free Trade Area of the Americas–the continent-wide trade pact being pushed by the Bush White House.

Indeed, Porto Alegre the week of the World Social Forum becomes a heaven-on-earth for political networkers of every stripe. With 29,000 delegates in town from all over the world, and three times that number of “participants,” onlookers and political tourists, it’s virtually impossible to escape the activist buzz. Today during a brief time-out I took in my hotel bar, I had former French First Lady Danielle Mitterrand and legendary McDonalds-masher José Bové sitting at the table to the right of me, the former president of the Brazilian central trade union federation to my left and a radical Spanish mayor in front of me. Whom to talk to first?