BRASILIA, Brazil – Brazil's new president began his first full day on the job Thursday, meeting Venezuela's embattled President President Hugo Chavez and scheduling a dinner with Cuba's Fidel Castro.
The day after his inauguration, former radical union leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also had meetings scheduled with top officials from eight countries — including Portugal, Canada, Sweden and Germany.
At a breakfast meeting, Chavez asked Silva to send technical experts from Brazil's state-owned oil company to replace some of the 30,000 striking Venezuelan state oil workers. Silva said he would consider the request.
Chavez left his strikebound and politically riven country despite the crippling workstoppage aimed at toppling him from the presidency of the world's fifth largest oil producer.
Earlier, Chavez predicted Venezuela would return to pre-strike oil production of 3 million barrels a day in a month to 45 days, a claim the opposition cast doubt on.
Silva was scheduled to have dinner with Castro, who praised the new president during a pre-inauguration interview with Associated Press Television News.
"I wished on January 1st what could be wished to our beloved brother," Castro said. "Cuba loves Lula very much and feels very happy."
Castro looked healthy and showed no signs of difficulty walking after recovering from a leg infection that kept him out of sight for nearly two weeks last month.
Silva, Brazil's first elected leftist president, counts Chavez and Castro as friends, and they sat in the front row of Congress when he was sworn in.
After Silva was elected in October, Chavez had hailed the victory, saying Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba should team up to fight poverty.
"We will form an 'axis of good,' good for the people, good for the future," Chavez said at the time.
In his sweeping inaugural address, Silva told how, as a boy, he sold oranges and peanuts to help his family survive in Brazil's impoverished northeast.
As Brazil's new president, Silva has made ending hunger his goal, saying a fertile land the size of the continental United States has no excuse for not feeding its people.
"If at the end of my mandate all Brazilians have the possibility to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, I will have fulfilled the mission of my life," Silva said.
Silva's childhood anecdote came near the end of an address detailing plans to help the 175 million citizens of Latin America's biggest country, including its 50 million poor.
Silva, a 57-year-old former radical union leader, said he would improve education, control inflation, reduce corruption and boost efforts to give land to the poor.
He promised to create jobs and negotiate hard with the United States over the terms of a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement, and he also railed against American and European subsidies that hurt Brazil's robust agricultural industry.
But Silva warned he cannot improve the lot of Brazilians overnight. The country's weak economy and investor concerns over how Silva will balance his social agenda with fiscal responsibility have contributed to double-digit inflation and the currency's 35 drop in value against the dollar.
"No one can reap the fruit before planting the trees," Silva said.
When Silva spoke before Congress, the masses jammed in a huge park outside, dancing and chanting "Lula! Lula!" — as Silva is popularly known. The mostly blue-collar crowd came from all parts of Brazil, many dressed in the white and red colors of Silva's party.
Then they stopped cheering, as if listening to a sermon from one of their own, as indeed he was — the son of a poor farmer who dropped out of the fifth grade to work.
Maria Aparecida Gussi cried tears of joy as Silva recounted his childhood struggles.
"All I want is a better Brazil for my children, and he's giving us that hope," said Gussi, a psychiatry professor. "The hope that it will be better."
After the ceremony, Silva ascended a ramp to the white marble presidential palace, and accepted from outgoing President Fernando Henrique Cardoso the presidential sash.
Leaders and representatives of 119 countries attended Silva's inauguration.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and U.S. Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., met Wednesday with Silva's finance minister, Antonio Palocci, to discuss the Brazilian (news - web sites) economy. Zoellick said Washington will "work with Brazil."
Silva is Brazil's 36th president, taking over from Cardoso in the country's first transition between democratically elected presidents in more than 40 years.
The country's last leftist president, Joao Goulart, got the job in 1961 after elected President Janio Quadros unexpectedly resigned. Goulart's presidency was characterized by a polarization of Brazil's society that led to a military coup in 1964.
Silva, who used to espouse socialism, was jailed during the dictatorship that lasted until 1985. He was elected president in an October landslide — his fourth try since 1989.
Before the inauguration, Brazilian pop music superstar Gilberto Gil performed. The dreadlocked Gil then donned a dark suit and was sworn in as Silva's cultural minister at the presidential palace.