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.”
Rousseff referenced those of her generation who fought and died at the hands of the 1964-85 military dictatorship. Rousseff was part of an armed rebel group for three years before being arrested and imprisoned in 1970. She spent three years in jail, during which time she was brutally tortured. Eleven women who were jailed with her were special guests at the inauguration.
“That at times tough path made me value and love life much more,” Rousseff said during her speech. “It gave me, more than anything else, courage to confront even bigger challenges. It’s with this courage that I’m going to govern Brazil.”
A heavy rain swept over the capital, Brasilia, as Rousseff arrived at the Congress in a 1953 Rolls Royce, waving out the window to the crowd. Her security detail included six young women, clad in black and running alongside the car through the downpour.
Wearing a white skirt and matching jacket, she took the oath of office alongside Vice President Michel Temer.
Rousseff now takes on the formidable task of maintaining the momentum built up during the eight years under Silva.
Her predecessor did not manage to get badly needed tax and social security reforms passed. The country’s education system lags, as does its infrastructure — which could hamper the World Cup and Olympics. Economic advances could be threatened by bottlenecks of poor roads and railways that transport raw goods to the coast for shipment abroad.
Rousseff has acknowledged all these issues, but offered few details on how they would be solved.
The president — whose managerial manner as chief of staff earned her the moniker “Iron Lady,” a name she has said she detests — lacks Silva’s charisma, and her election didn’t generate the same excitement that his did.
Few expect her to change many of Silva’s policies — which portends a good kind of boring, said Alexandre Barros of the Early Warning political risk group in Brasilia.
“Dilma represents a great novelty in Brazil,” he said. “Before, every new government brought with it huge uncertainty. Everybody would shout about how Brazil was going to ruins. But now, with Rousseff, no. She represents what we’ve already seen.”
Francisca Guimaraes, a 55-year-old subsistence farmer from Maranhao state, said she traveled three days by bus to attend the inauguration and believes Rousseff “will be a warrior for the poor.”
But when asked about Silva, Guimaraes’ eyes welled with tears and she acknowledged that perhaps she traveled to Brasilia more to say goodbye to him than to welcome Rousseff.
“I feel great sadness with Lula’s leaving, my heart is shrinking. He was the first leader who was good to the poor,” Guimaraes said. “I hope Lula taught Dilma how to help the poor. We need her to have the caring heart of a mother if we are to succeed.”
Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.