updated 3/1/2005 8:59:52 PM ET 2005-03-02T01:59:52

A doctor took office as Uruguay’s first socialist president Tuesday, 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 diplomatic row divided the countries.

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

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 South America’s new generation of leftists leaders looking on.

“I have not come alone,” 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 Oct. 31 for a better country for all Uruguayans.”

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

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 emblazoned with their signature sun in the upper left corner hung from the balconies of many apartment buildings, where people craned to get a glimpse of their new leader.

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

Climbing back from depression
“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 by 11 percent.

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.

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.

During the campaign, Vazquez pledged to help the poor, and his message resonated with voters increasingly skeptical of free-market policies being touted by Washington as the remedy for the region’s economic ills.

Regional ties a priority
While Vazquez has vowed to pursue moderate policies, he has promised to strengthen the country’s ties with neighbors Argentina and Brazil.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli congratulated Vazquez on his inauguration and said the United States considers Uruguay to be “an important friend and partner.” He said U.S. relations with Uruguay are based on shared values and mutual respect.

Over the last decade, many South American countries adopted free-market reforms, opening their economies and privatizing state industries, only to see their economies slow to a grind. Unemployment rates shot into the double digits in the 1990s amid a widening gap between rich and poor.

But most analysts say the new leftists — with the exception of the more populist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela — are seeking to balance social welfare and a greater role for the state with pro-market economic policies in a mold akin to Europe’s Social Democrats.

“The ‘leftist’ label is by now an artificial construct that should be jettisoned,” Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue wrote in a statement of leaders in Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

“In the minds of many, the term is still associated with irresponsible economic policies and populist appeals, a recipe for political instability.”

The sixth Latin American leftist leader — Cuba’s Fidel Castro — did not attend the inauguration, which was followed within hours by Uruguay’s restoration of ties with Cuba. Batlle, the outgoing president, broke diplomatic relations in 2002 after condemning Cuba’s human rights record.

$100 million fund for nation's poor
Vazquez also announced a $100 million emergency social welfare plan guaranteeing basic health care coverage and food for Uruguay’s poor.

Leftist Tupamaro guerrillas battled the Uruguayan state before and during the last dictatorship, and several former Tupamaros, including Senate leader Jose Mujica, are now key leaders in Vazquez’s coalition.

Still, few have invoked revolutionary ideologies of the past.

“Far from pursuing such a path, these countries are seeking the right balance between economic growth and serious attention to the urgent social agenda,” Shifter wrote. “That is the chief task facing Vazquez, as well as all the other Latin American leaders.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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