January 16, 2006

Chile’s first woman president to narrow inequality

By Pav Jordan

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile president-elect Michelle
Bachelet, a Socialist who will be the country's first female
leader, vowed on Monday to shrink the gap between rich and poor
that persists in the South American nation despite lower
poverty and a thriving economy.

Bachelet, from Chile's ruling center-left coalition, won 53
percent of ballots cast in Sunday's election while opposition
candidate Sebastian Pinera took 47 percent, the government
Electoral Service said.

The 54-year-old medical doctor, who was imprisoned and
tortured briefly during the beginning of the 1973-1990 Augusto
Pinochet dictatorship before living in exile abroad, will be
the fourth consecutive president from the center-left alliance
that has run Chile since 1990.

"What is important is that we guarantee decent and
dignified work to all Chileans ... what is important is that
everybody has the same rights and the same opportunities,"
Bachelet said at her first media conference as the president

An agnostic with three children from two relationships,
Bachelet benefited from a shift to more secular values in
Chile, which has had a reputation historically as one of the
region's most socially conservative countries.

Bachelet, who is to assume office in March, is expected to
be a pragmatic leftist, following in the footsteps of widely
popular President Ricardo Lagos, whose fiscal discipline won
over many right-leaning skeptics.

She told foreign reporters she would push for a bare-bones
Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that recognizes the
different economic realities of individual countries and allows
them to gradually build toward a more comprehensive deal.

On that point, Bachelet seemed more in line with the trade
agreement's strongest backer, the United States, than with
fellow leftists in Venezuela and Argentina, who helped block
progress on the FTAA in a presidential summit in November.


A former defense minister, Bachelet is only the second
woman elected to head a South American nation after Janet Jagan
of Guyana was chosen to succeed her husband as president in
1997 after he died.

Everyone from babies in Bachelet headbands to elderly
couples and tattooed young people joined in the street revelry
that crowded Santiago's main boulevard on Sunday night.

"We have all been pleased with Mrs. President's capacity to
approach people and her empathy, how she cares about the poor
and those who are marginalized, and how she cares about
children's well-being through the well-being of the family,"
said Francisco Javier Errazuriz, Santiago's archbishop.

Political scientist Ricardo Israel said a main challenge
for Bachelet will be to bring more women into public office,
and to find a place for her social-democratic coalition within
the range of leftist governments taking hold in Latin America.

Israel said she would have to balance the need to maintain
good global relations, particularly with the United States, so
Chile can keep benefiting from global free trade, while
guaranteeing a steady natural gas supply from its neighbors.

Bachelet has promised women would get half the jobs in her
cabinet, and she told tens of thousands of confetti-throwing
supporters she will work to improve social security and
education by the time her four-year term ends in 2010.

A Bachelet victory consolidates a shift to the left in
Latin America, where leftists now run Argentina, Brazil,
Uruguay and Venezuela, some with politics more extreme than

Socialist Evo Morales will soon take office in gas-rich
Bolivia, and a leftist is favored to win Mexico's July
presidential election.

"I think she will have to make one decision very soon,
which is whether or not to attend the inauguration of Evo
Morales, which is on January 22," Israel said, alluding to
traditional tensions between the two neighbors.

Bachelet said she had not made decisions about upcoming
trips, although she said neighboring Argentina would be one of
her first stops.

"As president-elect and as president, I will maintain an
appropriate relationship with all democratically elected
presidents," she told journalists.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised Bachelet's
tenacity and pledged his government's collaboration with Chile,
Venezuela's presidential press office reported.

(Additional reporting by Hilary Burke and Patrick Markey in