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Bachelet Takes Oath as Chile's President

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Bachelet Takes Oath as Chile's President

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Bachelet Takes Oath as Chile's President

Bachelet Takes Oath as Chile's President

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Michelle Bachelet, a 54-year-old single mother, assumes the office of president in Chile Saturday. She's the newest center-left leader to be elected in Latin America's evolving political climate.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. In Chile today 54-year-old Michelle Bachelet assumes the office of President. The single mother of three is the latest center-left leader to be elected in Latin America. Bachelet whose warm style won over her country, appears set to warm relations within the region. From Santiago, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that even Chile and Bolivia, two countries long at odds, took the step toward closer ties this week.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Thousands of Chileans leftists led by indigenous chieftains rose to welcome the new Bolivian leader Evo Morales, the continent's first indigenous president. In a gesture that took the Bolivian leader aback, the crowd roared words he'd thought he'd never hear in Chile. Mar Para Bolivia, they shouted. Sea for Bolivia. The landlocked country lost its coastline to Chile in the war of the Pacific in the late 1880s. Bolivia's long-frustrated ambition to restore its access to the sea remains a simmering source of tension between Chile and Bolivia. Morales briefly joined the chant, then expressed thanks and surprise at the solidarity.

President EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Speaking Spanish)

McCARTHY: I'll never forget and Bolivia will never forget this event, this homage to the Bolivian people, he said. To the struggle, to life, humanity and territory. Morales invited the packed stadium to join him in a round of vivas to the unity of Latin America, to the unity of the Bolivian, Chilean people.

President MORALES: (Speaking Spanish)

McCARTHY: Morales is the first Bolivian president to attend a Chilean inauguration. After a brief session with Chile's president-elect, Morales said the two new leaders represented groups that had been excluded from power and could not change history. The former coca farmer was not shy about defending his country's right to cultivate coca, a policy that the U.S. Administration fears could derail its multibillion dollar war on drugs in the region. The Bolivian leader insisted it is a question of sovereignty.

President MORALES: (Speaking Spanish)

McCARTHY: It seems that in Bolivia and in Latin America, Morales said, there's a battle underway between two kinds of green. The green of the coca leaf which represents native and Andean culture, he said. And the green of the dollar which represents the culture of empire. The question of Bolivia's coca cultivation is almost certain to arise when Morales meets U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the sidelines of Chile's Presidential Inauguration. En route to Santiago, Rice told reporters that Morales represents what she called the rise of someone from modest means, an indigenous population that is increasingly represented in the heads of government in Latin America. And she added, I think that's a very good thing.

Rice is not meeting Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, the oil rich leader who accuses the U.S. of attempting to oust him. Some 30 world leaders are on hand to celebrate the inauguration of a woman whose personal past as a victim of Chile's political repression is commanding world respect.

Michelle Bachelet leads a center-left coalition that has strengthened Chile's democratic institutions and produced one of the most stable countries in Latin America. Secretary Rice said the inauguration of Bachelet, a Socialist, represents the triumph of democracy.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.

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