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Uruguay inaugurates leader as Latin America leans left

Vazquez promises help for poor and caution toward US

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- Tabare Vazquez took office as Uruguay's first leftist president yesterday, aligning the small South American country with a regional political shift in that direction.

A cancer specialist and former mayor of the capital, Vazquez becomes the seventh left-leaning Latin American leader to come to power. He emphasized greater help for the poor and a cautious approach to US-backed free-market economic policies.

Vazquez, 65, was sworn in for a five-year term as thousands of flag-waving supporters crowded outside a packed ceremony at the Congress building in the Uruguayan capital.

Vazquez replaces Jorge Batlle after winning an Oct. 31 presidential election that broke a 170-year lock on power by the country's two traditional parties.

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 blocks from 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, a 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. The two countries have maintained consulates.

Vazquez takes over from 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. Other Latin American nations that have leftist leaderships are Cuba and Chile.

Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, and Chile's Ricardo Lagos all attended yesterday's celebration.

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 percent 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 neighbors Argentina and Brazil.

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.

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