Brasilia, Brazil From torture in a dictatorship-era jail cell to the helm of Latin America’s largest nation, it’s been an unlikely political rise for President Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel turned career technocrat who claimed Brazil’s seat of power Saturday.
In becoming the country’s 36th president, Rousseff pulled off a feat nearly unthinkable a year ago when the relative unknown was tapped by then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to be the ruling Workers Party candidate.
She swept into office on the back of Silva’s near universal adoration in Brazil.
“I am going to consolidate the transformative work done by President Lula,” said Rousseff, 63, during a 40-minute inaugural address. “He changed the way the government is run and led the people to trust in themselves.”
Silva left office as the nation’s most popular president, with an approval rating that hit 87 percent in his last week. Rousseff served during both of his four-year terms, first as energy minister and then as chief of staff.
After signing the oath of office in Congress, Rousseff traveled to the presidential palace, where Silva removed his sash and placed it over her head as thousands of onlookers cheered. Silva, always emotional, hugged several ministers and aides as he left by car to begin the journey to civilian life at his private home near Sao Paulo.
Silva, who broke barriers by becoming Brazil’s first working-class president, could not resist one last dive into the crowds. He was unable to hold back sobs as his wife, Marisa, tried in vain to comb his hair for photos.
Rousseff, known for her tough demeanor, also teared up as she said goodbye to her political mentor and returned to the palace.
In her inaugural address, Rousseff paid homage to Silva and the advances Brazil made under his watch.
His social programs and wealth redistribution helped pull 20 million people out of poverty. Once on the brink of a sovereign default in 2002, the nation now lends money to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment is at a record low, and the currency has more than doubled against the U.S. dollar. Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup and is expected to be the world’s fifth-largest economy by the time the 2016 Olympics come to the nation.
While proud of those gains, Rousseff said this is no time to relax.
“There is still poverty shaming our country,” she said. “I will not rest while there are Brazilians without food on their table, homeless in the streets and poor children abandoned to their luck.”