Brazil's first female president sworn in

2011-01-01 20:26

Brasilia - Dilma Rousseff was sworn in as Brazil's first female president Saturday pledging to build on the policies of her hugely popular predecessor and mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Rousseff, Lula's 63-year-old former cabinet chief, assumed the presidency in Brazil's Congress after a short motorcade ride under steady rain during which she waved to an estimated 70 000 well-wishers lining Brasilia's streets.

After swearing an oath and signing official documents before lawmakers in Brazil's Congress, she gave her first speech to the nation as president.

She swore she would protect the most vulnerable in Brazil's society and "govern for all".

She repeatedly paid homage to Lula, saying she had been honoured to serve under "the great man" and pledged to maintain her predecessor's achievements, notably in reducing poverty and promoting economic prosperity.

"The most determined struggle will be to eradicate extreme poverty," she said, declaring: "We can be a more developed and fairer country."

Natural born politician

Rousseff outlined plans for tax reforms, environmental protection, improved health services, regional development - and unspecified measures to combat foreign "speculation" that could upset Brazil's economic growth.

After the speech, Rousseff was to see Lula at the presidential palace, where he was to give her the green-and-gold presidential sash and Latin American presidents were to welcome her.

Lula, who was required to step down after serving the maximum two consecutive terms permitted under Brazil's constitution, threw his formidable popularity and charisma into getting Rousseff elected his successor.

He has not said what he plans to do in retirement, though he commented weeks ago that he was a "natural born politician" who would not rule out maybe trying to return to the presidency after Rousseff's four-year mandate was over.

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.

Security fears

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.

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.

Big shoes to fill

Rousseff has much to do to fill the big shoes of the previous president, whose shadow will likely fall over most, if not all, of her mandate.

A former trade union leader, Lula 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 handover 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.

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