Moises Castillo  /  AP
Guatemala President Alvaro Colom, right, and Vice President Rafael Espada celebrate with supporters after being sworn into office in Guatemala City on Monday.
updated 1/14/2008 7:08:35 PM ET 2008-01-15T00:08:35

Alvaro Colom was sworn in Monday as Guatemala's first leftist president in more than 50 years, promising to fight poverty in a nation where half the people live on less than $1 a day.

Colom took office along with his vice president, former Houston Methodist Hospital heart surgeon Rafael Espada, in a ceremony attended by at least 10 world leaders, including Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Despite his ideology, Guatemala's new leader said he doesn't want to be identified with other leftist governments in Latin America, including that of Chavez.

Arguing that each country must "find its own path," he said he won't accept Venezuela's offer of oil for preferential terms until he has consulted with his country's influential business elite.

"I ask God to give me the wisdom and humility to win over those who didn't vote for me. And God willing, in a few months Guatemala will begin to see a reduction in poverty and crime," he told Radio Sonora early Monday.

Speaking to reporters before the ceremony, Chavez said Venezuela was ready to help Colom's government any way it could, including with oil at preferential terms, investment and other aid.

"The doors are open," the Venezuelan leader said.

Colom, an industrial engineer who led Guatemala's efforts to coax thousands of war refugees back home, has promised a broad social agenda that includes building schools and medical centers, creating jobs and bringing security to a country where gangs behead victims and drug traffickers control much of the police forces.

The country's last leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, was thrown out of office in 1954 by a CIA-orchestrated coup.

Surveys show Guatemalans believe he'll do a better job than the outgoing, pro-business President Oscar Berger. A recent poll found nearly half of those questioned were optimistic that Colom will turn around the impoverished, crime-ridden country after defeating former Gen. Otto Perez on Nov. 4 with 52 percent of the vote.

But even Colom recognizes his job won't be easy. Half of Guatemala's 13 million people live on less than $1 a day, and discrimination against the ethnic Mayan majority is rampant.

Colom plans to recruit business leaders by having them participate in a so-called "Social Pact" to improve the economy and alleviate poverty.

Colom's work with war refugees, the majority of whom were Mayan Indians, earned him honorary training as a Mayan priest. But his Cabinet will have only one Mayan representative, Culture Minister Jeronimo Lancerio, and one woman, Education Minister Ana de Molina. He has said his deputy ministers will be more diverse.

The ceremony provided Chavez with his first opportunity to meet face-to-face with Uribe since the two leaders were at odds over Colombia's hostage crisis.

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