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Chile's Lagos leaves office on free market quest

By Staff
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SANTIAGO, Chile, Feb 23 (Reuters) Chile's Ricardo Lagos, a free-market Socialist who brought his country to the threshold of the First World, leaves office in two weeks and sees his future promoting regional free trade even as many of his neighbors sour on globalisation.

Lagos, whose approval rating soared to over 70 percent last year, seems reluctant to leave the job he has had for six years even though he has a future as a respected senior statesman on the global stage.

''I've had fun, of course. Another president said this was the house of suffering. I've only suffered a little,'' Lagos said, laughing, during an interview with Reuters in the presidential palace.

He has not completely ruled out running for president again -- many Chileans would like to see him return -- but he cautioned that second terms often end in disappointment.

A 67-year-old economist, lawyer, and persuasive orator, Lagos leaves office with the economy healthy after 16 years under a center-left coalition that has won every election since ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet left power.

Despite his opposition to the Iraq war, Lagos stayed friendly with the United States and supported free trade even as other more radical leftists took office in Latin America. Washington referred to him as the region's ''responsible'' leftist.

Lagos had a teflon quality: he was unscratched by minor corruption scandals such as an alleged sweetheart government contract for his brother-in-law and double salaries for officials at public works, the ministry he once headed.

The opposition blasted him for being soft on crime but Lagos' popularity helped his former defense minister, Michelle Bachelet, to win elections and she will become the country's first woman president on March 11.

MAKING CHILE MORE TOLERANT Lagos' new job is president of the Madrid Club, a group of democracy-promoting former leaders such as Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev.

MORE REUTERS SRS RAI2301

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