- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — A doctor took office yesterday as Uruguay’s first socialist president, joining the ranks of left-leaning leaders in Latin America — now six in all — governing a majority of the region’s people with a cautious approach to U.S.-backed free-market policies.

In one of his first official acts, Tabare Vazquez restored full diplomatic ties with communist Cuba, more than two years after a row divided the countries.

Thousands of Uruguayans — many waving flags and chanting “Ur-u-guay” — filled Montevideo’s streets for the inauguration of Mr. Vazquez, a 65-year-old cancer specialist whose swearing-in ended more than 170 years of power by two moderate parties.

Mr. Vazquez, elected Oct. 31 to replace Jorge Batlle, is part of a reinvigorated — but far less ideological — leftist movement in Latin America whose leaders have come to power amid economic turmoil. He took the oath of office for his five-year term with many of the new generation of leftists leaders in attendance.

“I have not come alone,” Mr. Vazquez said at the packed ceremony at congress. “I take office as president of the republic with the support of hundreds of thousands of compatriots who expressed their democratic wishes last October 31 for a better country for all Uruguayans.”

Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Chile’s Ricardo Lagos looked on as the crowd cheered.

Mr. Vazquez climbed into an antique car to leave the ceremony, then jumped onto the back of a pickup truck, blowing kisses to a crowd of thousands who turned out for a street fiesta.

Confetti flew and occasional fireworks boomed overhead as his motorcade slowly made its way to the presidential offices.

Blue-and-white Uruguayan flags hung from the balconies of many apartment buildings, where people craned to catch a glimpse of their new leader.

Carpenter Hugo Folena, 40, waved the red-white-and-blue flag of Mr. Vazquez’s Broad Front coalition and smiled as he talked of his hopes surrounding the new leader.

“I’m praying this means we will eventually have a better Uruguay,” he said. “One where there is better public health, better public education and work opportunities for everyone.”

Uruguay, long one of Latin America’s most stable economies, is climbing out of a 2002 depression in which the economy shrank 11 percent.

The upheaval left one of every three Uruguayans below the poverty line — a blow to a country where generous social benefits for years had assured one of the region’s highest living standards.

Mr. Vazquez’s victory broke a long-running hold on power by the Colorado and 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 1973-84 dictatorship.

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