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Leftist fiesta in Chile for Bachelet inauguration

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VALPARAISO, Chile, March 11 (Reuters) Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first woman president, was sworn in today before a who's who of Latin America's resurgent leftist leadership, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales were among more than two dozen heads of state at the inauguration in the coastal city of Valparaiso, home to Chile's Congress.

''In Latin America, you have a laborer becoming president, that's Lula; an Indian, Evo, has arrived; a socialist woman; and a soldier - that's me, a revolutionary soldier - building a new South American project that is vital for the salvation of our people,'' said Chavez as he arrived at Congress.

Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense minister, is the fourth consecutive leader from the center-left coalition that has ruled Chile since the country returned to democracy in 1990 after the 17-year Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

''This is a big party for Chilean democracy, this is what makes our country serious and trustworthy in the world,'' said popular outgoing President Ricardo Lagos as he was cheered by crowds outside the national palace.

Bachelet, only the second elected woman leader in South America, is expected to continue Lagos' successful mix of liberal social policies, fiscal discipline and free market economic policies that have brought Chile prosperity and made it one of the most stable nations in the region.

Chile, the biggest copper producer in the world, is living an economic boom thanks to high prices for metals. Consumers are spending freely and the government, enjoying a budget surplus, is building new highways and infrastructure.

Bachelet is at the pragmatic end of the different strains of leftism now in power in Latin America. Chile is one of the most U S-friendly nations in the region, though it has parted ways on some issues such as the war in Iraq.

The free-market styles of Brazil and Chile contrast with the price controls and populism of Kirchner, while no leader has joined Chavez's self-styled revolution and anti-U S discourse, although Morales is critical of U.S. drug policy in Bolivia.

Speaking to reporters traveling with her to Chile, Rice said her attendance at the inauguration reaffirmed America's strong relationship and friendship with the Chilean people.

''I think it is good to remember that it has now almost been 20 years that the United States has been a friend and supporter of democracy in Chile. We actually helped with the transition to democracy in Chile,'' she said.

The United States, alarmed by the socialist government of democratically elected Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, also supported the Pinochet regime.

Rice said Bachelet and her family were a symbol of what the Chilean people had gone through to reach where the country was today. Bachelet's father, an air force general, died after being tortured during the military regime.

Bachelet and her mother lived in exile after they were briefly imprisoned in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship.

''It's a story of tragedy and then of triumph,'' said Rice.

''This journey for Chile was a difficult one,'' she added.

REUTERS KD VC2150

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