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Chile’s Bachelet returns to power on promise of reform

Photo: AFP

Socialist leader Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as Chilean president for a second time on Tuesday after a four-year hiatus from leading the country.


Amid prolonged pomp and ceremony, dignitaries watched the inauguration of Bachelet, who took over from conservative outgoing premier, Sebastian Pinera. Now starting her second term, Bachelet was Chile's first woman president when she first took office in 2006.

Bachelet, 62, faces an economic slowdown and student-led protests that have paralysed the country in recent years and will likely challenge her promise of profound social changes.

Isabel Allende, the daughter of former toppled president Salvador Allende and Chile’s first-ever female Senate leader, placed the presidential sash on Bachelet’s shoulder amid thunderous applause and cheers at the ceremony in Valparaiso.

“It’s time to take this road that we committed to through our government programme; it’s time to kick start these dreams towards a nation that is more just, developed, modern, tolerant and inclusive,” Bachelet later told a cheering crowd of more than 5,000 people outside the presidential palace in Santiago de Chile.

“Chile has only one great adversary: inequality. And only together we’ll be able to defeat it,” she said.

High expectations

The election victory of Bachelet, a moderate socialist, followed promises to finance education reform with higher corporate taxes, improve health care, change the dictatorship-era constitution to make Congress more representative and reduce the vast wealth gap between rich and poor.

But some think Bachelet has raised expectations too far.

“She promised a lot of things, a lot of reforms, so people expect many things to happen,” Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University, told AP.

“But the economic conditions have changed,” he added. “The economy is not growing quite as fast and Bachelet is not going to have the leverage to introduce all the reforms.”

During her first presidency from 2006 to 2010, Bachelet won praise for shepherding Chile through the global economic crisis. Although growth stumbled and unemployment rose, she used government reserves to help the poorest Chileans, and she enjoyed 84 percent approval when she left office.

Envy of Latin America

Chile is the world’s top copper exporter, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and inflation have been the envy of the rest of Latin America.

But many Chileans say more of its wealth should be used to help reduce income inequality and make quality education accessible to everyone.

Many blame the 1973-90 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Allende, for concentrating wealth and power. Pinochet privatised water resources and ended agrarian reforms. He also eliminated central control and funding of public schools.

Bachelet, the daughter of a general who died of torture after challenging Pinochet, became Chile’s first female defence minister and president, then the first leader of the UN women’s agency.

Her “New Majority” coalition welcomed Communists, street activists and former student leaders – some of which have become the country’s youngest lawmakers – and won in December by the widest margin in eight decades of presidential elections.

Venezuela crisis lurking

Chile’s economy thrived under Pinera, but metals prices have dropped and growth has slowed just as Bachelet hopes to take in about $8.2 billion in taxes from businesses to fund her education reform.

The inauguration was attended by most presidents from Latin America as well as US Vice President Joe Biden. But the unrest in Venezuela cast a shadow across the day.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro cancelled plans to be at the swearing-in after Biden called the street protests in Venezuela “alarming” and said democratically elected leaders who rule as authoritarians damage their people and countries. Maduro sent his foreign minister, Elias Jaua, in his stead.

Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said on Tuesday that fellow ministers from the UNASUR group of South American nations will meet Wednesday in Santiago to hear what Jaua has to say about the Venezuelan government’s claim that weeks of street protests have been fomented by “coup plotters”. Bachelet has tried to straddle the divide.

“We are always going to try to find ways of assuring that human rights are truly guaranteed,” she told local TV on Friday. “Neither does it seem proper to take violent actions seeking to destabilise a democratically elected government.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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