Uruguay to inaugurate first leftist president

South America’s political shift leftward continued on Tuesday with the inauguration of Uruguay’s first leftist president.

Several of South America’s most prominent leftist leaders—including Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner—were expected to join thousands of Uruguayans celebrating the swearing-in of Tabare Vazquez, a 65-year-doctor who won the presidency in the October 31 election.

The red-white-and-blue flags of Vazquez’s Broad Front coalition of socialists, communists and former Tupamaro guerrillas fluttered above Montevideo’s plazas and boulevards ahead of the inauguration as Uruguayans expressed optimism over the transition.

“Let the party begin!” said Ricardo Ramirez, a Broad Front supporter selling bumper stickers and flags with the party’s emblem near the presidential offices on Monday.

“After that comes the hard part: the challenge of turning around our poor country. I have faith Vazquez can do it.”

Vazquez, an oncologist and former Montevideo mayor, has vowed to help end economic misery in what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries.
In one of his first acts as president, Vazquez is expected to announce a $100-million social emergency plan aimed at helping the country’s poor.

Only hours after receiving the presidential sash, he is also expected to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Vazquez takes over from Jorge Batlle, a centrist who pursued closer ties with the United States at a time when leftists were taking power in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, and distancing themselves from Washington on a range of economic, trade and foreign policy issues.

In recent years, Uruguay was widely seen as one of the closest US allies in the region.

But Uruguay, long one of Latin America’s most stable economies, is climbing out of an economic depression in which the economy shrank by 11% more than two years ago.

The upheaval left one of every three Uruguayans below the poverty line—a blow to a country where generous social benefits had for years assured one of the region’s highest living standards before the onset of the 2002 financial crisis, the worst on record.

While Vazquez has vowed to pursue moderate policies, he has promised to strengthen the country’s ties with neighbours Argentina and Brazil, whose leaders to varying degrees have expressed scepticism about US-backed free-market policies to open their economies further.

Vazquez’s victory broke a long-running hold on power by two of the country’s more traditional parties—the Colorado and the more centrist National parties—which alternately controlled the presidency for more than 170 years. Their dominance was interrupted occasionally by military rule, most recently during the country’s 1973-1984 dictatorship.

Batlle, the outgoing president, broke diplomatic relations with communist Cuba in 2002 after a war of words with Cuban leader Fidel Castro following Uruguay’s decision to condemn Cuba’s human rights record in an annual United Nations vote in Geneva. The two countries have since maintained consular relations.

Vazquez said on Monday that Castro would not attend Tuesday’s ceremonies because of “health reasons”.

The 78-year-old Castro is still recovering after falling down and shattering his left kneecap and breaking his right arm during a public appearance in October.

Among others expected to attend the inauguration were the presidents of Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, as well as Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe. The US was sending a delegation headed by Labour Secretary Elaine Chao.—Sapa-AP

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