Chile swears in new president

Ex-political prisoner Bachelet is first woman to lead the nation

March 12, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Michelle Bachelet, a lifelong socialist, former political exile and ex-prisoner of the military dictatorship, was sworn in yesterday as Chile's first woman president with the luminaries of South America's new leftist leadership and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the audience.

"Our strength will be the women," Bachelet, 54, told an animated, largely female crowd of thousands downtown as she made her initial address as chief of state from the ornate presidential palace, La Moneda. "In Chile, there will be no forgotten citizens. This is my promise."

Thousands of admirers lined the route as the president's motorcade made its way into the capital from the seaside port of Valparaiso, where she was formally inaugurated for a four-year term. "The past is past and we will never forget it," the new president, speaking from a balcony, said during her 19-minute address.

World attention has focused on Bachelet since her victory Jan. 15 in a runoff election, in part because of her past but also because of the cultural and political significance of her election.

Bachelet is an agnostic and separated mother of three from two different fathers. Until recently, she drove her youngest daughter, Sofia, 12, to school each morning and did the family shopping in her SUV.

Her rise highlighted a cultural shift in a mostly Catholic country long regarded as among the most conservative in Latin America, a nation where divorce was only recently legalized, abortion remains illegal and women often earn as much as 40 percent less than men with similar jobs.

Bachelet has pledged a "parity government," with equal numbers of men and women in key jobs, and has named 10 women and 10 men to her Cabinet. She rose to national prominence in the Cabinet of outgoing President Ricardo Lagos, serving as minister of health and defense. Bachelet was a physician and had worked for Lagos' campaign.

Bachelet heads the fourth consecutive government of the center-left coalition known as the Concertacion that has ruled since the 1990 ouster of the military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

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