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Lula praises Brazilian democratization

By CARMEN GENTILE

SAO PAULO, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- Brazil's new president -- the nation's first leftist leader in almost 40 years -- praised on Monday the country's democratic electoral process, calling it "a victory for all Brazilians" as he laid out an agenda of sweeping reforms.

Workers' Party (PT) President Elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called Sunday's runoff election -- in which he garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in defeating former Health Minister Jose Serra -- "a victory for Brazilian society and its democratic institutions."

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It was only the fourth democratic presidential election for South America's largest nation since the military regime relinquished power in 1985 after 21 years.

In 1964, Brazil's military leaders overthrew Marxist-leaning President Joao Goulart amid rampant inflation.

"The great virtue of democracy is that it allows the people to change the horizon when they deem it necessary," said Lula, as he is commonly known.

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"Our victory signifies the choice of an alternative means (of government) and the beginning of a new historical cycle in Brazil."

A four-time presidential hopeful, Lula sought to implement "a new historical cycle" in Brazil for 13 years. His first defeat came in 1989 in a close race with President Fernando Collor de Mello, who eventually resigned before Congress could impeach him on corruption charges.

His next two presidential bids -- in 1994 and 1998 -- were against current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had handpicked Serra to be his chosen successor this time around.

"There is no doubt that most people voted for the adoption of a new ideal (for Brazil), in which everyone is entitled to basic assurances," said Lula before a capacity crowd of local and foreign media in Brazil's financial capital, Sao Paulo.

"Most of Brazilian society voted for the adoption of another economic and social model, one capable of assuring the regeneration of growth -- of economic development with employment generation and distribution of income," he said.

Lula campaigned on a platform promising that if elected, he would work toward narrowing the enormous economic divide between Brazil's wealthy and poor, one of the greatest in the world.

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He also pledged to work toward raising the minimum wage, which stands at 200 reals a month (about $55), and improve social services such as healthcare and public security.

The new president -- who assumes office on Jan. 1 -- said one of his first official acts would be the creation of a task force to combat hunger among the nation's impoverished millions.

"If at the end of my mandate, each Brazilian can eat three times a day, I will have accomplished my mission in life," said Lula.

He then went on to outline an aggressive legislative plan that covers labor laws, taxes and a more even distribution of wealth.

Lula also said "job creation will be an obsession of mine and of my government," a notion many Brazilians embrace, considering unemployment hovers near 8 percent amid sagging financial markets.

"The Brazilian people know, however, that ... there is no magic solution for social debt," said Lula.

"But it is necessary to begin (working toward change) from the very first day" of his new administration.

President Cardoso has vowed to work with the president-elect to ensure a smooth transition leading up to January's official handover. He has even said he would share some decision-making responsibilities with the new leader before the New Year.

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Lula attempted to assuage investors' fears, saying that his administration "will honor all contracts and international agreements," referring to Brazil's $260 billion in foreign debt.

Local and foreign investors have speculated that Lula might default on the loans if elected, sending Brazil into a fiscal death spiral similar to that of its southern neighbor, Argentina.

Throughout the campaign and on Monday, Lula reiterated his commitment to meeting Brazil's debt obligations, although he has said in the past he might seek to restructure the debt.

He is scheduled to announce key members of his financial team on Tuesday in an effort to quell investor concerns.

On Monday, the Bovespa stock index fell 4.4 percent to 9,573.94. The real fell 2 percent to 3.8 per dollar.

While acknowledging Brazil's financial woes, Lula called for the nation to bolster its export capabilities and "reduce its foreign vulnerability."

Lula has been an outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led proposal for the hemispheric trade bloc known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

"As it is being proposed by the United States, the FTAA is not an integration proposal, it is annexation politics, and our country won't be enclosed," he said during a September interview.

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Instead, he has proposed to strengthen the regional trade bloc that encompasses Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Washington will likely try to persuade Lula to join the FTAA, as the participation of the world's eighth-largest economy would prove crucial to the success of a regional trade alliance.

Washington welcomed Lula's win Monday.

According to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush congratulated Lula on his victory and told Brazil's president-elect that "he looked forward to working with him, especially with regard to advancing democracy, good governance, and free trade in the hemisphere."

A resilient Lula rounded out his first official agenda address promising he "won't disappoint the Brazilian people" and that his countrymen's soul will be his "inspiration and compass."

He said: "My heart beats strong. I know that is tuned in to the hopes of millions and millions of other hearts. I am optimistic. I feel that a new Brazil is being born."

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