Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s president on Sunday, issuing a harsh indictment against former far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro and promising a drastic change of course to rescue a nation ravaged by hunger, poverty and racism.
In a speech to Congress after officially taking the reins of Latin America’s largest country, the leftist said democracy was the real winner of October’s presidential election, when it beat Bolsonaro in the most tense vote in a generation.
Bolsonaro, who traveled to the United States on Friday after refusing to concede defeat, rattled Brazil’s young democracy with unsubstantiated claims of electoral weaknesses that sparked a violent movement of election deniers.
“Democracy was the great winner, surpassing… the most violent threats to the freedom to vote and the most abject campaign of lies and hatred conspired to manipulate and shame the electorate,” Lula told lawmakers.
Lula, who was jailed during Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019 over corruption convictions that were later overturned, issued a veiled threat to his predecessor.
Although Bolsonaro’s trip to Florida insulates him from any immediate legal danger in Brazil, he now faces growing legal risks from his anti-democratic rhetoric and his handling of the pandemic now that he no longer has presidential immunity.
“We have no spirit of revenge against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological designs, but we will guarantee the rule of law,” Lula said, without mentioning his predecessor by name. “He who erred will answer for his mistakes.”
He also accused Bolsonaro’s government of committing “genocide” by failing to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic that killed more than 680,000 Brazilians.
“Responsibility for this genocide must be investigated and must not go unpunished,” he added.
Lula’s plans for government stand in stark contrast to Bolsonaro’s four years in office, which were characterized by a rollback on environmental protections in the Amazon rainforest, looser gun laws and weaker protections for indigenous peoples and minorities.
In his first decisions as president, Lula restored the authority of the government’s environmental protection agency Ibama to combat illegal deforestation, which had been watered down by Bolsonaro, and revoked a measure encouraging illegal mining on protected indigenous lands.
It also unfroze the $1 billion Amazon fund funded by Norway and Germany to support sustainability projects, reinforcing its commitment to ending deforestation in the Amazon, which reached its highest point in 15 years under Bolsonaro.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which had little in common with Bolsonaro and was irritated by his lackluster environmental policies, wished Lula and his vice president, Geraldo Alckmin, success.
“We look forward to continuing the strong U.S.-Brazil partnership on trade, security, sustainability, innovation and inclusion,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted. “For a bright future for our countries and the world.”
Lula also reversed Bolsonaro’s looser gun policies, which had led to a sharp increase in gun ownership. “Brazil doesn’t want more weapons, it wants peace and security for its people,” he said.
After the oath, Lula addressed himself in a Rolls-Royce (LON:RR) convertible to the Planalto palace, where he climbed the ramp with his wife and a diverse group that included Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó tribe, a young black man and a disabled man.
Then Aline Sousa, a black garbage collector, handed Lula the presidential sash, a hugely symbolic act in Brazil that Bolsonaro had repeatedly said he would never do.
Tens of thousands of people who had gathered to celebrate on the esplanade of Brasilia cheered as Lula wiped away tears.
In a subsequent speech, he pledged to unite the polarized country and govern for all Brazilians. “There are not two Brazils,” Lula said. “We are a country, a great nation.”
Lula said he would be fiscally prudent, but made clear that his main focus would be to end hunger and reduce rampant inequality. She also said her goal is to improve women’s rights and attack racism and Brazil’s legacy of slavery.
He assured that this will be the hallmark of his government.
Allies said Lula’s new social conscience was the result of his 580 days in prison, Reuters reported on Sunday.
Lula’s inauguration took place amid 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 power in a climate of vandalism and violence.
On Christmas Eve, a supporter was arrested for making a bomb that was discovered in a truck loaded with aviation fuel at the entrance to Brasilia’s airport, and confessed that he sought to sow chaos to provoke a military intervention.
Bolsonaro has seen his support evaporate among many former allies due to anti-democratic demonstrations.
On Saturday night, then-interim President Hamilton Mourao, who was Bolsonaro’s vice president, criticized his former boss for allowing anti-democratic sentiment to thrive after his defeat at the polls in October.
“Leaders who were to reassure and unite the nation… allowed silence or inopportune and deleterious protagonism to create an atmosphere of chaos and social disintegration,” Mourao said in a speech.
Lula’s election victory marked a surprising political comeback, winning an unprecedented third presidential term after a pause that saw him spend a year and a half in prison.
In his previous years as president from 2003 to 2010, the former union leader lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty during a commodity boom that boosted the economy.
Now, he faces the daunting challenge of improving Brazil’s stagnant economy while uniting a country that has become painfully polarized under Bolsonaro.
“A lot is expected of Lula. It will have the difficult mission of restoring normalcy and predictability in Brazil and, above all, quickly delivering results that improve the quality of life of its inhabitants,” said Creomar de Souza, director of the consultancy Dharma Political Risk in Brasilia.