March 11, 2006

Leftist fiesta in Chile for Bachelet inauguration

By Silene Ramirez

VALPARAISO, Chile (Reuters) - Michelle Bachelet, Chile's
first woman president, was sworn in on Saturday before a who's
who of Latin America's resurgent leftist leadership, and U.S.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, Argentina's Nestor
Kirchner, Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and
Bolivia's Evo Morales were among more than two dozen heads of
state at the inauguration in the coastal city of Valparaiso,
home to Chile's Congress.

"In Latin America, you have a labourer becoming president,
that's Lula; an Indian, Evo, has arrived; a socialist woman;
and a soldier - that's me, a revolutionary soldier - building a
new South American project that is vital for the salvation of
our people," said Chavez as he arrived at Congress.

Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense minister, is
the fourth consecutive leader from the centre-left coalition
that has ruled Chile since the country returned to democracy in
1990 after the 17-year Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

"This is a big party for Chilean democracy, this is what
makes our country serious and trustworthy in the world," said
popular outgoing President Ricardo Lagos as he was cheered by
crowds outside the national palace.

Bachelet, only the second elected woman leader in South
America, is expected to continue Lagos' successful mix of
liberal social policies, fiscal discipline and free market
economic policies that have brought Chile prosperity and made
it one of the most stable nations in the region.

Chile, the biggest copper producer in the world, is living
an economic boom thanks to high prices for metals. Consumers
are spending freely and the government, enjoying a budget
surplus, is building new highways and infrastructure.

Bachelet is at the pragmatic end of the different strains
of leftism now in power in Latin America. Chile is one of the
most U.S.-friendly nations in the region, though it has parted
ways on some issues such as the war in Iraq.

The free-market styles of Brazil and Chile contrast with
the price controls and populism of Kirchner, while no leader
has joined Chavez's self-styled revolution and anti-U.S.
discourse, although Morales is critical of U.S. drug policy in

Speaking to reporters traveling with her to Chile, Rice
said her attendance at the inauguration reaffirmed America's
strong relationship and friendship with the Chilean people.

"I think it is good to remember that it has now almost been
20 years that the United States has been a friend and supporter
of democracy in Chile. We actually helped with the transition
to democracy in Chile," she said.

The United States, alarmed by the socialist government of
democratically elected Salvador Allende in the early 1970s,
also supported the Pinochet regime.

Rice said Bachelet and her family were a symbol of what the
Chilean people had gone through to reach where the country was
today. Bachelet's father, an air force general, died after
being tortured during the military regime.

Bachelet and her mother lived in exile after they were
briefly imprisoned in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship.

"It's a story of tragedy and then of triumph," said Rice.
"This journey for Chile was a difficult one," she added.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming)