Chile's Bachelet to be sworn in again as president

LUIS ANDRES HENAO and EVA VERGARA
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President-elect Michelle Bachelet, greets supporters after meeting with different authorities invited to the presidential inauguration, in Santiago, Chile, Monday, March 10, 2014. Bachelet will be sworn in as Chile's president on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo)

VALPARAISO, Chile (AP) — Michelle Bachelet may be older and wiser than she was eight years ago when she first assumed Chile's presidency, but chances are that leading her restive nation won't be any easier this time around.

The moderate socialist was being inaugurated Tuesday, promising to finance education reform with higher corporate taxes, improve health care, change the dictatorship-era constitution to make Congress more representative and reduce the vast gap between rich and poor.

Some think that may have raised expectations too far.

"She promised a lot of things, a lot of reforms, so people expect many things to happen," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University.

"But the economic conditions have changed," he added. "The economy is not growing quite as fast and Bachelet is not going to have the leverage to introduce all the reforms."

During her first presidency in 2006-10, Bachelet won praise for shepherding Chile through the global economic crisis. Although growth stumbled and unemployment rose, she used government reserves to help the poorest Chileans during hard times, and she enjoyed 84 percent approval when she left office even though she achieved no major changes.

The student protests that bedeviled outgoing President Sebastian Pinera began under Bachelet, who named a commission and shuffled her Cabinet in response. That seemed enough at a time when the student groups were strongly influenced by the ruling center-left coalition.

Those bonds broke under Pinera, when Communist Party members such as Camila Vallejo led the students. Vallejo is now a member of Congress and a Bachelet ally, but the key university student unions are led by anarchists who are vowing to make life impossible for Bachelet if she doesn't follow through.

"The urgency of the educational crisis that we're living doesn't allow us to give her a honeymoon," said Naschla Aburman, president of the Catholic University student federation.

Chile is the world's top copper exporter, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and inflation have been the envy of Latin America. But many Chileans say more of its wealth should be spent on reducing income inequality and making quality education accessible to all.

Many blame Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-90 dictatorship for concentrating wealth and power. Pinochet privatized water resources and ended agrarian reforms. He also eliminated central control and funding of public schools, enabling wealthy communities to take care of their own and impoverishing most of the country's schools.

Bachelet, the daughter of a general who died of torture after challenging Pinochet, became Chile's first female defense minister and president, and after leaving the presidency was the first leader of the U.N. women's agency. Four years later, she was still the center-left's best hope, and reluctantly returned to campaign.

Her "New Majority" coalition welcomed Communists, street activists and former student leaders, and won in December by the widest margin in eight decades of presidential elections.

Chile's economy thrived under Pinera, but metals prices have dropped and growth has slowed just when Bachelet hopes to take in about $8.2 billion in taxes from businesses to fund her education reform.

Pinera was praised for reconstruction efforts after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake devastated part of the country days before he took office, and his management of the rescue of 33 trapped miners brought him global fame.

His popularity plunged amid clashes between police and protesters, but bounced back after he took strong positions against dictatorship-era abuses. The billionaire former airline executive now plans to form a foundation, stay in the public eye and move his conservative coalition to the political center for another shot at the presidency in four years.

Meanwhile, unrest in Venezuela cast a shadow across Chile's inauguration.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is attending the inauguration, called the deadly street protests in Venezuela "alarming" and said democratically elected leaders damage their own people and countries by weakening institutions and ruling as authoritarians.

That drew an angry rebuke from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who decided not to attend the ceremony and sent his foreign minister Elias Jaua to Chile in his stead.

Argentine foreign minister Hector Timerman said Tuesday that fellow ministers from the UNASUR block of South American governments will meet Wednesday in Chile to hear what Jaua has to say before taking action to support Venezuela's government from forces he has labeled "coup plotters."

Bachelet, for her part, has tried to straddle the divide.

"We are always going to try to find ways of assuring that human rights are truly guaranteed. Neither does it seem proper to take violent actions seeking to destabilize a democratically elected government," she said in a television interview with Chile's Channel 13 on Friday.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

Eva Vergara on Twitter: https://twitter.com/evergaraap