Image: President Jose Mujica
Miguel Rojo  /  AFP-Getty Images
Uruguayan President Jose "Pepe" Mujica, left, embraces outgoing President Tabare Vazquez after receiving the ceremonial sash at a ceremony in Montevideo on Monday.
updated 3/1/2010 4:23:16 PM ET 2010-03-01T21:23:16

A former guerrilla leader who won the trust of voters with his homespun manner and promises to govern as a conciliator became Uruguay's new president Monday.

Jose Mujica, 74, is the second consecutive leftist president in a country which, until 2005, had been ruled by right-wing parties or the military for 150 years.

He took the oath administered by his wife — also a former guerrilla leader — while wearing a blue suit and no tie — an accessory he says he will shun as president, in keeping with the flower farm owner's gruff, anti-politician image.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was among dignitaries attending the inauguration.

Mujica, who helped found the National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros that carried out bombings, kidnappings and robberies to overthrow elected governments in the 1960s, says he now rejects the "stupid ideologies" of the past.

He promises to deepen the policies of popular outgoing President Tabare Vazquez, who tried to control public spending while using revenue from income tax to lower unemployment and provide equal access to health care to everyone under 18.

Uruguay was one of the few Latin American countries whose economy grew last year.

Mujica, who was elected in November, has also promised to promote Latin American unity, and his victory was widely welcomed in a region of prickly relations between some leftist and conservative governments.

"I wish to not only congratulate the president-elect and the new government, but to applaud the way in which the government is unifying and bringing together even opposition parties," Clinton said at a news conference before the inauguration. "Indeed, Uruguayans are rightly proud of their leaders and their democracy."

Mujica urged reconciliation between conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela's leftist Hugo Chavez, whose bitter spat at summit in Mexico last week marred efforts to create a new Latin American political bloc.

Chavez and Uribe both attended Mujica's inauguration, with Uribe saying he expected excellent relations with Uruguay's new leftist government.

During his campaign, Mujica insisted he would not try to emulate Chavez's efforts to install a radical socialist state, saying he was inspired instead by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's centrist policies.

At a recent event, Mujica encouraged 1,500 foreign businessmen to investment in Uruguay, promising they "would not be weighed down by taxes or confiscations."

Mujica helped found the Tupamaros, one of many Latin American leftist rebel groups inspired by the Cuban revolution in the 1960s to fight U.S.-backed right-wing governments. Convicted of killing a policeman in 1971 — a crime he denies committing — he endured torture and solitary confinement during nearly 15 years in prison.

Mujica has said the experience cured him of any illusion that armed revolution can achieve lasting social change.

He and his wife Lucia Topolansky, now a senator, spent a quarter century transforming the Tupamaros into a legitimate political movement that is now the driving force behind the coalition of parties that backed his campaign.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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