BRASILIA, Brazil – Brazil's first elected leftist president took office Wednesday, pledging to ease the agony of countless impoverished and hungry Brazilians who inhabit South America's biggest country -- a fertile land the size of the continental United States.
Choking back tears as he spoke to an estimated 200,000 supporters, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said there was no excuse for hunger among any of Brazil's estimated 50 million poor.
"If at the end of my mandate all Brazilians have the possibility to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, I will have fulfilled the mission of my life," said the former union leader and head of the Workers Party.
Silva warned, however, that the task would be difficult. Brazil's weakened economy has produced double-digit inflation and a currency that lost 35 percent of its value against the dollar last year.
"No one can reap the fruit before planting the trees," Silva said.
As Silva began to speak before Congress, the masses who were jammed in a huge park outside danced and chanted "Lula! Lula!" -- as Silva is popularly known.
Then they fell silent, transformed as if listening to a sermon from one of their own, as indeed he was -- the son of a dirt-poor farmer who dropped out of the fifth grade to shine shoes and sell peanuts. The scene was in stark contrast to previous Brazilian inaugurations, when the crowds never numbered more than 30,000.
Silva said he would fight inflation, reduce corruption, boost efforts to give land to the poor and negotiate hard with the United States over the terms of a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement.
Psychiatry professor Maria Aparecida Gussi and her 13-year-old daughter cried during the speech, but said their tears were from joy.
"All I want is a better Brazil for my children, and he's giving us that hope," Gussi said. "The hope that it will be better."
After the swearing-in and speech before Congress, Silva ascended a ramp to the presidential building, and accepted from outgoing President Fernando Fernando Henrique Cardoso the revered symbol of the presidency -- a sash with the green, blue and yellow colors of the Brazilian flag.
Earlier, a man burst through barricades to hug Silva while he stood smiling and waving from the convertible Rolls-Royce that drove him to the inaugural.
Just before Silva walked on a red carpet into Congress, several young people broke through police lines near an artificial lake, jumping into the water to be closer to their future president.
Leaders and representatives of 119 countries -- including presidents of seven other Latin American nations -- attended the inauguration. Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez watched from the front row of Congress as Silva was sworn in.
In an interview with the Associated Press Television News before the inauguration, Castro praised Silva and said relations between Brazil and Cuba will intensify now that he is president.
"I wished on January 1st what could be wished to our beloved brother," Castro said. "Cuba loves Lula very much and feels very happy."
Silva counts Castro and Chavez as friends, and will have breakfast Thursday with Chavez and lunch with Castro. Last month Castro spent nearly two weeks out of sight while undergoing treatment for an infection in his leg. Castro looked healthy on Wednesday and walked with no perceivable limp.
The United States sent U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. He and Sen. Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, met Wednesday morning for an hour with Antonio Palocci, Silva's finance minister.
"It was a listen-and-learn visit, in which the basic economic problems of Brazil were discussed," Zoellick said in a statement.
Silva, 57, takes over from Cardoso in Brazil's first transition between two democratically elected presidents in more than 40 years. He is Brazil's 36th president.
The country's last leftist president, Joao Goulart, got the job in 1961 after elected President Janio Quadros unexpectedly resigned. Goulart's presidency was characterized by a polarization of Brazil's society that led to a military coup in 1964.
A former radical who used to espouse socialism, Silva was jailed during Brazil's dictatorship, which lasted until 1985. He won the presidency in a landslide in October on his fourth try since 1989.
Silva has taken pains to tell voters that it may be difficult during his first four-year term to keep his promises of creating millions of jobs and ending hunger. He will be up for re-election in 2006.
People watching the ceremony said Silva is up to the job but will have a tough time keeping his campaign promises.
"I hope he's going to change things, but it's a huge challenge for him," said Fabiane Cristina, a 20-year-old baby sitter who lives in Brasilia.
Federal police estimated the crowd at 200,000 or more, according to the Web site of O Globo, a Rio de Janeiro newspaper.
In a break with tradition, organizers set up huge TV screens in the park and a stage where Brazilian pop groups started playing hours before the inauguration. Hundreds of outdoor stalls sold everything from grilled pork and beer to T-shirts.
Brazilian pop music superstar Gilberto Gil, who will serve as Silva's cultural minister, was one of the first to play.
"Viva Lula!" Gil shouted to thunderous applause. After the concert, the dreadlocked Gil donned a dark suit and was sworn in at the presidential offices with the rest of Silva's ministers.