Lula takes over in Brazil, blasting Bolsonaro’s anti-democracy threats

BRASILIA, Jan 1 (Reuters) – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s president on Sunday, launching a harsh indictment of far-right former leader Jair Bolsonaro and vowing a drastic change of course to save a nation plagued by hunger and poverty and racism.

Speaking to Congress after officially taking over the reins of Latin America’s largest country, the left said democracy was the real winner in October’s presidential election, when it ousted Bolsonaro in the most tense election in a generation.

Bolsonaro, who left Brazil for the United States on Friday after refusing to concede defeat, has rattled the cages of Brazil’s fledgling democracy with unfounded allegations of electoral weaknesses that have spawned a violent movement of electoral deniers.

“Democracy was the big winner in this election, overcoming … the most vicious threats to freedom of choice and the most abject campaign of lies and hate devised to manipulate and embarrass the electorate,” Lula told lawmakers.

Lula, who was behind bars during Bolsonaro’s 2019 inauguration over later overturned bribery convictions, made a veiled threat to his predecessor.

Although Bolsonaro’s Florida trip protects him from any immediate legal jeopardy in Brazil, he now faces mounting legal risks — linked to his anti-democratic rhetoric and handling of the pandemic — after losing his immunity as president.

“We have no spirit of vengeance against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological agendas, but we will guarantee the rule of law,” Lula said, without mentioning Bolsonaro by name. “Those who made a mistake will answer for their mistakes.”

He also accused Bolsonaro’s government of committing “genocide” by failing to adequately respond to the COVID-19 virus that killed more than 680,000 Brazilians.

“The responsibilities for this genocide must be established and must not go unpunished,” he said.

Lula’s plans for the government contrasted sharply with Bolsonaro’s four-year tenure, which was marked by backsliding on environmental protection in the Amazon rainforest, looser gun laws and weaker protections for tribal peoples and minorities.

Lula said he wants Brazil, one of the world’s largest food producers, to become a green superpower.

In his first decisions as president, Lula restored state environmental protection agency Ibama’s authority to combat illegal logging, which had been watered down by Bolsonaro, and rescinded a measure that encouraged illegal mining on protected indigenous lands.

He has also unblocked the multi-billion-dollar Amazon Fund, financed by Norway and Germany to support sustainability projects, and reaffirmed his commitment to ending deforestation in the Amazon, which hit a 15-year high under Bolsonaro.

The administration of US President Joe Biden, who had little in common with Bolsonaro and resented his lackluster environmental policies, wished Lula and his Vice President Geraldo Alckmin every success.

“We look forward to continuing the strong partnership between the US and Brazil on trade, security, sustainability, innovation and inclusion,” tweeted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “To a bright future for our countries – and the world.”

Lula also reversed Bolsonaro’s looser gun policy, which had led to a sharp rise in gun ownership.

“Brazil doesn’t want more guns, it wants peace and security for its people,” he said.


[1/15] Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, his wife Rosangela ‘Janja’ da Silva, Vice President Geraldo Alckmin and his wife Maria Lucia Ribeiro Alckmin walk down the ramp of the Planalto Palace after his swearing-in ceremony in Brasilia, Brazil January 1, 2023. REUTERS /Ricardo Moraes

After the swearing-in ceremony, Lula drove in an open-top Rolls-Royce to the Planalto Palace, where he met his wife and a motley crew, including Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó tribe, a small black boy and a disabled man.

Lula was then presented with the presidential sash by Aline Sousa, a black garbage collector – a highly symbolic act in Brazil that Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he would never do.

Tens of thousands gathered to celebrate on Brasilia’s Esplanade cheered as Lula wiped away tears.

In a speech that followed, he promised to unite the polarized country and rule it for all Brazilians.

“There aren’t two Brazilians,” Lula said. “We are one country, one great nation.”

Lula said he was fiscally cautious but made it clear his primary focus would be ending hunger and reducing rampant inequality. He also said he aims to improve women’s rights and attack racism and Brazil’s legacy of slavery.

“That will be the hallmark of our government,” he said.

Allies said Lula’s newfound social conscience was the result of his 580 days in prison, Reuters reported on Sunday.


Lula’s inauguration took place under heightened security.

Some of Bolsonaro’s supporters have claimed the election was stolen and called for a military coup to prevent Lula from returning to office amid a climate of vandalism and violence.

On Christmas Eve, a Bolsonaro supporter was arrested for building a bomb that was discovered on a truck loaded with aviation fuel at the entrance to Brasilia Airport and confessed he was trying to provoke military intervention.

Bolsonaro has seen his support from many former allies evaporate over the anti-democracy protests.

On Saturday night, then-President Hamilton Mourao, who was Bolsonaro’s vice president, criticized his former boss for allowing anti-democracy sentiment to flourish after the election.

“Leaders who should calm and unite the nation … have allowed silence or inappropriate and harmful protagonists to create an atmosphere of chaos and social disintegration,” Mourao said.

Lula’s election victory marked a stunning political comeback, earning him an unprecedented third term after a hiatus during which he spent a year and a half behind bars.

In his previous two terms as president, from 2003 to 2010, the former union leader lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty during a commodity boom that fueled the economy.

Now he faces the daunting challenge of improving Brazil’s faltering economy while unifying a divided country.

“A lot is expected of Lula,” said Creomar de Souza, director of the Brasilia-based consulting firm Dharma Political Risk. “He will have the difficult mission of restoring normalcy and predictability to Brazil, and most importantly, delivering results quickly that improve the quality of life for residents.”

Reporting by Maria Caroline Marcello, Ricardo Brito, Lissandra Paraguassu, Anthony Boadle and Fernando Cardoso; Edited by Daniel Wallis and Kirsten Donovan

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