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New year ushers in a first for Brazil -- a female president

By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
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Brazil elects first female president
  • Dilma Rousseff has a tough act to follow
  • Her predecessor's policies have been overwhelmingly popular
  • Poverty remains a formidable challenge in Brazil

(CNN) -- She is coming to power holding the hand of a powerful man. Replacing Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil on January 1 is 63-year-old Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to govern this South American country of more than 200 million people.

The public expects a lot. Rio de Janeiro resident Ana Claudia de Freitas wants Rousseff to follow in Lula da Silva's footsteps. "Everything Lula did, she has to continue doing," de Freitas said. "She must keep on increasing salaries, improving the lives of workers and the poor."

Lula da Silva ends his two terms in office with an approval rate of more than 80 percent in Brazil. He also is popular in the rest of Latin America. Though he is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, the 65-year-old former factory worker and union organizer hasn't ruled out running for the presidency again in 2014.

Rousseff, the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant who is herself a former Marxist guerrilla, has never before held elected office. She makes no secret of her plans to seek Lula da Silva's advice frequently. She was the president's chief of staff and energy minister before getting Lula da Silva's support to replace him.

Reflecting on his two four-year terms in office, Lula da Silva told reporters in November that he was satisfied with his administration's achievements. "I know that we didn't do everything, but we have done much more than what others did over decades and decades," said Lula da Silva.

As president-elect, Rousseff has chosen nine women to join her cabinet, including Tereza Campello as social development minister; Maria do Rosario as special secretary for human rights; and Luiza Helena de Bairros, who will serve as minister for promotion of racial equality. Some key figures from Lula da Silva's administration, including Finance Minister Guido Mantega, will keep their jobs under Rousseff.

Rousseff may find economic conditions more difficult than Lula da Silva did. "The international economy is going to be harsher on Brazil," predicted Mauricio Santoro, an analyst with the Rio-based, independent Getulio Vargas Foundation. "The real -- the Brazilian currency -- is overvalued. Therefore, there's pressure on Brazilian exports and the government will have to make changes."

The new leader's moves are sure to receive international scrutiny. Calling Brazil "an essential partner in the hemisphere and the world," the U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would attend the inauguration.

Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games two years later. Meanwhile, the country's infrastructure is in sore need of improvement. Brazil's economy grew more than 7% in 2009, according to government figures. The booming economy and Lula da Silva's investment in social programs are credited with helping 30 million Brazilians escape poverty.

But poverty remains a formidable challenge in Brazil. According to the CIA World Factbook, as many as 26% of Brazilians -- some 50 million people -- lived in poverty in 2008.

Crime is also a big problem.

Rio resident Helena Salerno said she is worried about her safety. "I think that the most critical issue is violence, but we also have other problems like health care and education," said the nurse. "We're in urgent need of development," Salerno told CNN en Español this week.

Journalists Fabiana Frayssinet and Luciani Gomes in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.