VALPARAISO, Chile – Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist pediatrician who suffered prison, torture and exile under Chile's military dictatorship, was sworn in as the nation's first female president on Saturday.
Bachelet took her oath before Senate President Eduardo Frei at the crowded Hall of Honor of Chile's Congress in this port city near Santiago. Outgoing President Ricardo Lagos removed the white, red and blue presidential sash he was wearing and handed it to Frei, who placed it on Bachelet.
The 54-year-old president appeared relaxed and waved her right hand in response to salutes from people in the stands.
Some 30 foreign leaders and several prominent women, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, attended.
Bachelet's inauguration marks a deep cultural change in this male-dominated, conservative society, where divorce was legalized less than two years ago, abortion remains illegal, and women often earn up to 40 percent less than men doing the same work.
Already, she's challenged the traditional power structure by appointing what she calls a "parity government" — with equal numbers of men and women at more than 250 key jobs. She made the appointments without the traditional, lengthy negotiations with the political parties.
In addition, Bachelet has also vowed to promote legislation that would force political parties to include a certain percentage of female candidates.
Bachelet was elected to a four-year term in a Jan. 15 runoff vote to replace Lagos, a fellow Socialist. Bachelet served as Lagos' defense and health minister.
At an International Women's Day celebration, Lagos called Bachelet's election "proof that we have expanded the limits of what is possible in Chile nowadays."
A separated mother of three, Bachelet is the first elected Latin American leader who didn't rise to power with the help of a powerful husband. She says her victory reflects profound changes in Chilean society.
Bachelet is the daughter of an air force general who was tortured and died in prison for opposing the 1973 military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. She, too, was briefly imprisoned and tortured before being forced into exile.
She is expected to maintain Lagos' free market economic policies that have made Chile's economy one of the healthiest in Latin America. The country had a $5 billion surplus in 2005.