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Brazil inaugurates first female president

By Helena de Moura, CNN
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Brazil inaugurates first female president
  • Dilma Rousseff became Brazil's first female president Saturday
  • Thousands line the streets to take part in the ceremonies
  • Her inauguration takes place 41 years after her arrest for subversive activities
  • Rousseff says she was tortured by the military

(CNN) -- Brazil's first female president was sworn in Saturday amid cheers and tears from supporters, many of whom followed her rise from freedom fighter brutally persecuted by the country's military junta in the 1960s to head of state.

The world watched as Dilma Rousseff announced her new directives as president, drawing attention to the historic weight of her presidency.

"This is the first time that the presidential sash hangs over the shoulders of a woman," she said.

"I am committed to honoring women, to protecting the most vulnerable and to govern for all."

"From now on I am the president of all Brazilians," a tearful Rousseff told the crowd.

Rousseff, 63, replaces Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the most popular president in Brazil's recent history. Rousseff served as his chief of staff.

Rousseff, who was elected in October in a runoff vote, was sworn in just before 3 p.m. local time, along with her vice president, Michel Temer.

Brazil elects first female president

Chanting the song of Rousseff's PT Worker's Party -- "Ole ole ole ole... Lula ...Dilma..." -- crowds gathered in the historic National Congress in support of their new president, a guerrilla fighter-turned politician who will now head one of the world's largest economies.

Brazil is still struggling with poverty, crime and corruption, despite the steady optimism projected by the nation's financial institutions.

Rousseff's inauguration Saturday was attended by 23 heads of state, nine vice presidents, 76 ambassadors and 24 secretaries of state, including Hillary Clinton, with whom she shared a brief handshake.

Rousseff had a somewhat longer encounter with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, signaling a closer relationship with emerging nations and challenging U.S. hegemony.

"We will give great attention to emerging nations," Rousseff told members of Congress during her inaugural speech.

"We can transform our region into an essential component of a multipolar world that is to come, giving greater consistency to Mercosul and multilateral forums," she said, referring to an alliance of South American nations.

"We will not make the smallest concession to the protectionism from rich nations that suffocate any opportunity for so many nations to overcome poverty through the hard work of production," she said.

Rousseff also spent time with Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, both also known as left-wing heads of state.

Rhetoric aside, the pragmatist Rousseff included the United States and the European Union in her list of those Brazil would like to maintain strong relationships with, despite disagreements over trade, the environment and the ongoing currency crisis.

According to the World Bank, Brazil has quickly become a major player in world politics and one the world's ten largest economies in GDP. According to the International Monetary Fund's 2011 economic outlook, Brazil's economy is expected to grow by more than 5%, faster than many developed nations, including the United States.

A major world player in agribusiness, experts claim Brazil has weathered the global financial crisis by benefiting from a hike in commodity prices.

In 2010, Brazil's accumulated GDP in the third quarter 2010 grew by 7.5 %, showing growing strength in the industrial sector, followed by the agriculture sector and the services sector, IMF analysts reported.

Despite its economic boom, Brazil still struggles with poverty, hunger and an education crisis. But according to studies by Brazil's official statistical survey institute, IBGE, 31 million Brazilians entered the middle class and 24 million left poverty during since 2003.

Like her predecessor, Rousseff vowed to fight hunger while promoting polices to stimulate growth.

"Overcoming squalor requires prioritizing a long cycle of growth," she said, adding that a fiscal restructuring must take place in order to maintain Brazil's stable growth.

Outside the Brazilian National Congress, crowds of well-wishers gathered, waving the red flags of the Workers Party.

The much-anticipated inauguration was dampened somewhat by heavy rain, which forced the new president to find cover in a 1952 black Rolls Royce that paraded down the Esplanade of the Ministries as thousands looked on.

Her inauguration comes nearly 41 years after Rousseff was arrested and escorted in a military van to the Tiradentes Prison where, she told Brazil's Congress, she was "barbarically tortured" for nearly two years.

Known as the "subversive Joan of Arc," Rousseff was tortured under Brazil's dictatorship for her activities as a left-wing guerrilla fighter in the late 1960s.

Rousseff honored 11 women who spent time in prison with her at Tiradentes.

Carlos Fico, a leading historian on Brazil's brutal military rule that began in 1964, said Brazilians -- especially victims of torture -- were moved that she chose to include her cellmates in the historic inauguration.

"It coincides with many changes taking place in Brazil," Fico said.

"While so many suffered terrible forms of torture, women were victimized in more ways than others, given the machismo that pervaded in the military. Many women prefer not to mention the details," he said.

As the nation's first woman to hold the office, Rousseff said at the time of her election that she has a mission to fight for more gender equality in Brazil. As for her past and the allegations that she engaged in subversive activities to fight the military regime, Rousseff said she had "no regrets, resentment or rancor."

"I dedicated all my life to the Brazilian cause. I delivered my youth to dream of a just and democratic nation, " said Rousseff, choking up as she spoke before her cellmates, who stood in the front row of the Congress.

"This tough journey made me value and love life even more," she said.