March 7, 2006

Chile’s success could be Bachelet’s biggest challenge

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile's first woman president,
Michelle Bachelet, takes office on Saturday as her people enjoy
an extended run of good fortune, and analysts say the biggest
problem for her government could be that Chile has so few

Citizens of Latin America's most stable economy are
spending with abandon as companies expand and create new jobs.
The government is pouring money into new highways and
infrastructure as dollars flow into the country from booming
exports of copper to Asia.

Outgoing President Ricardo Lagos, a member of the Socialist
Party like Bachelet, is so popular he was greeted with a
standing ovation by tens of thousands of U2 fans when he
attended the Irish band's recent concert in Santiago.

Some political pundits say all this could make Bachelet too
complacent to push for the changes that one of the region's
best-run countries needs to launch itself into the developed

"She must be a president whose content, and not just her
style, are different from Lagos'. Lagos did some very good
things, but Chile needs to do a number of more good things to
keep moving forward. Continuing the same policies will not make
Chile a developed nation in 10 years," said Patricio Navia, a
political scientist with New York University.

Navia said Bachelet must take steps to increase workers'
productivity and to expand the economy. He also said he feared
the Cabinet she has appointed will follow her orders with
discipline without producing new ideas.

Bachelet is seen following Lagos' pragmatic blend of
liberal social programs with a web of trade agreements that
have boosted Chile's salmon and wood pulp exports.


Chile's low infant mortality and poverty rate, high life
expectancy and literacy rate, relatively high per-capita
income, and running water and sewage services for most of the
population, make it more advanced than most of the region, and
put it on the threshold of the developed world.

Lagos has said Chile should aim to reach developed status
by 2010, its bicentennial year.

Visitors to Chile are struck by its honest police,
impressive highways, and dramatic transition to democracy after
the Augusto Pinochet 1970s-1980s military government that made
the country notorious for human rights violations.

But critics of the center-left government, which has ruled
since 1990, say education and health reform are lacking, the
gap between rich and poor remains appalling and crime is

Bachelet, who was taken political prisoner by the military
regime in the 1970s, became defense minister under Lagos
decades later. She captivated Chileans in a role that
symbolized reconciliation at long last between the country's
deeply polarized right and left.

The election of Bachelet, a separated mother of three, is
also a sign that socially conservative Chile, which only
recently legalized divorce, is becoming more tolerant.

Bachelet's inauguration in the coastal city Valparaiso will
be attended by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a rare
high-level visit to a Latin American government handover that
analysts said is an sign of solidarity with an important Latin
American ally.

"Rice going, that's a step up from what the U.S. has been
doing for Latin America recently. I think that's an important
gesture," said Nicolas Shumway, director of the Institute of
Latin American Studies at the University of Texas.

The inauguration could cement Chile's role as a bridge
between the United States and Latin America's resurgent
leftists, including confirmed guests Argentine President Nestor
Kirchner, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva,
Bolivia's Evo Morales, Uruguay's Tabare Vasquez and Venezuela's
Hugo Chavez.