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Chile elects first woman pro free trade socialist

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UPDATE 3-Chile's first woman president to narrow inequality
Mon Jan 16, 2006 4:40 PM ET

(Adds Bachelet comments to foreign press on FTAA, paraggraphs 7-8)

By Pav Jordan

SANTIAGO, Chile, Jan 16 (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 elect.

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 others.

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 Jan. 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 Caracas)

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