Brazil welcomes first female president

2011-01-01 17:55

Brasilia - Brazil's first female president, Dilma Rousseff, was to take control of Latin America's biggest economy on Saturday from outgoing popular leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in a triumphant handover ceremony.

Rousseff, a 63-year-old economist and Lula's former cabinet chief, was to be driven through the capital Brasilia in an open-top Rolls-Royce to her new destiny, under the watchful gaze of police snipers and warm, gray skies that threatened rain.

For many of the estimated 70 000 people turned out to see the event, it was more a farewell for Lula than a warm welcome for his successor.

"I came to see Lula, because he governed well, and I hope she will do so too, because we need a president that wants to end the violence and the slums," one Brasilia local, Vera Pereira Silva, told AFP.

Rousseff is taking over a country with an economy that grew an enviable 7.6% in 2010, enjoys recently discovered oil finds that could make it a big-league exporter, has won a significant role on the world stage, and is preparing to host the 2014 football World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

But huge challenges loom ahead.

Diplomatic row

Growth is expected to slide to 4.5% in 2011, inflation is well above the government target at an estimated 5.9% and rising, and an aim to cut public debt from 42% to 30% is likely to meet resistance, not least because Brazil desperately needs more and better infrastructure.

Brazil's currency, the real, has more than doubled in value against the dollar during Lula's eight years in power, and looks set to rise further, undermining the competitivity of Brazilian exporters.

Rousseff, a leftwing former guerrilla who was tortured in prison in the 1970s for opposing the then-military government, will also inherit a diplomatic row with Italy.

On his last day in power, Friday, Lula sparked the spat by refusing to extradite an Italian former militant, Cesare Battisti, convicted of four murders in the 1970s.

A furious Rome had withdrawn its ambassador in protest and warned it would up the pressure to have Battisti handed over.

Brazil's Supreme Court is to examine the legality of Lula's decision in February when it returns from its recess, handing Rousseff the dilemma until then.

Even the prestige of the World Cup and Olympics will require careful attention.

Works to get the country ready for the football event are behind schedule. A recent clampdown on violent gangs in Rio's notorious slums will have to be sustained and expanded up to the Olympics to overcome security fears.

Finally, Rousseff faces uncertainty in her re-election chances in four years' time - from her mentor.

Lula was only stepping down Saturday because Brazil's constitution limits presidents to two consecutive mandates.

But he has described himself as a "natural-born politician" who would not rule out a return to office.

Negotiating skills

A former trade union leader, he deftly employed his negotiating skills in international diplomacy and to stay firmly in charge of the ruling Workers Party.

His genuine man-of-the-people demeanour translated into an 87% popularity rating by the end of his reign.

Rousseff, in contrast, has never before held elected office and largely persuaded voters to give her the presidency on the strength of her promises to continue Lula's policies.

"My heart is divided. Lula was a statesman, a very charismatic man who represented the working class, and all of us are sad to see him go," said Maristela Leal, a teacher come to watch the ceremony.

"I feel better represented by Lula than by Dilma. But I have a lot of hope for her, and I think it's important to have a woman as president," she said.

Rousseff recognizes she has little of Lula's charisma, but has promised to make up for it with the sort of hard work and determination that has already earned her the nickname "the Iron Lady."

Though Lula campaigned hard to make her his successor, in his final days in office he hinted he could consider a comeback in 2014 if she failed to uphold his legacy.

He would watch Rousseff's performance, he said, adding: "The only possibility I see of Dilma not being a candidate in 2014 is if she doesn't want to be."

Read more on:    luiz inacio lula da silva  |  dilma rousseff  |  brazil
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