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Hugo Chavez heads to social forum

Venezuelan leader expects sympathetic reception for his plans

Hugo Chavez heads to social forum

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is heading to the World Social Forum, sure to get a sympathetic reception for his push to redistribute wealth from Latin America's elite to the hemisphere's countless poor.The self-professed revolutionary was scheduled to arrive yesterday in southern Brazil to attend the annual protest to the simultaneous World Economic Forum held for the planet's movers and shakers at the expensive Swiss ski resort of Davos.
Tens of thousands of leftist activists are attending the social forum, railing against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and the global spread of liberalized trade, a move they say benefits multinational corporations and enslaves workers in developed countries.
Chavez sympathizes with those issues, and is trying to launch a "Bolivarian Revolution" in Venezuela, a political movement loosely based on the ideas of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
During his visit to Brazil, Chavez will focus on a controversial topic: Redistributing idle land to poor farmers who have no chance of saving to buy their own without government help.
The Venezuelan leader was scheduled to visit a town about 130 kilometers (81 miles) from Porto Alegre to meet poor farmers who are members of Brazil's Landless Rural Workers' Movement, a group that stages organized invasions of idle farmland in a bid to gain title for the farmers.
Chavez has vowed "war against owners of large land estates" in Venezuela using a 2001 law that allows the taxation and expropriation of "idle" farmlands not put to adequate use.
Government opponents, including cattle ranchers and owners of large land estates, argue the law is unconstitutional because it violates private property rights guaranteed under the nation's constitution.
Land invasions are also a hot topic in Brazil, but social forum activists criticize Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva falling short on promised land reform in favor of focusing more paying down foreign debt.
Some say they now consider Chavez a much stronger advocate for land reform than Silva, who made the issue a priority in his 2002 campaign for the presidency of Latin America's largest country.
"I think Lula is more concerned with the financial well-being of Brazil and is more conservative than Chavez," said Jacek Padee, a Pole who has been living in Brazil for more than a year while studying the landless movement. "He's afraid to make these courageous advances."
But Padee and others say Chavez is in a better position to do so because Venezuela has vast oil reserves that can be used to prop up its economy, while Silva was forced to struggle to turn Brazil's economy around after a near-recession in 2002 and 2003.
"It's now clear we're going to have to wait more time for what Lula promised," said Caetano Garrafiel, a Catholic priest for a Porto Alegre suburb. "But I think this year or next year he's got to start moving forward on land reform.
In one of biggest draws in the six-day event, activists cheered at a gathering where countercultural celebrities urged developing nations Saturday to vault themselves into the information age with free open-source software.
Grateful Dead lyricist John Barlow said poor nations can't solve their problems unless they stop paying expensive software licensing fees.
"Already, Brazil spends more in licensing fees on proprietary software than it spends on hunger," said Barlow, also the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyberspace civil liberties group.
But Barlow said Brazil is taking solid steps to wean itself from Microsoft with a prominent campaign to persuade Brazilians to shift from costly Windows products to applications that run on the open-source Linux operating system.
Silva administration officials say the open-source policy makes sense for a developing country where a mere 10 percent of the 182 million people have computers at home and the debt-laden government is the nation's biggest computer buyer.
China, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea are also pursuing open-source alternatives. In a partial response to the open-source threat and to piracy, Microsoft last year launched stripped-down, inexpensive versions of Windows in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Similar products are on the way for India and Russia.
Lawrence Lessig, chairman a nonprofit organization devoted to sharing creative material online, said proprietary software and copyright laws used by corporations to protect intellectual property prevent people in poor countries from harnessing the power of information and creating wealth.
"Free software! Free culture! Demand it now!" Lessig said.