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This weekend, when Chile's Socialist President Ricardo Lagos steps down after six years in office, Latin America will lose its most outstanding sitting head of state.

What's so special about him? It's not just that he will be leaving office with a 70 percent approval rating. More importantly, he has proven that Latin Americans can have responsible leftist leaders who - unlike Venezuela's radical populist President Hugo Chavez - can rule democratically, insert their countries into the global economy and reduce poverty at record rates.

Without messianic claims - on the contrary, he often downplays his country's own achievements - Lagos, 68, has continued a two-decade-old export-led recovery that has allowed Chile to reduce poverty from 39 percent in 1990 to about 18 percent today. (By comparison, oil-rich Venezuela has seen poverty grow by more than 10 percent since Chavez took office, according to official Venezuelan government figures that were recently revised after Chavez denounced them as unfair.)

Furthermore, against the dire forecasts of the old-guard left, Lagos proved that a Latin American country can pursue a free trade deal with Washington without compromising foreign policy independence.

Before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Chile opposed the Bush administration's military intervention proposal at the U.N. Security Council, arguing - rightly, as it turned out - that there was no evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Despite the diplomatic confrontation with the Bush administration, Chile signed a free trade deal with the United States months later.

In a long interview with Lagos recently, I asked him, what does it mean to be a "socialist" at this time and in this age?

Lagos: One of the key things that defines being a socialist in the 21st century is guaranteeing equal opportunities regarding education. That's easier said than done: Here, in Chile, 60 percent of the young people in our universities belong to the top quintile of the population. Only 12 percent of the young people in our universities belong to the poorest quintile. Changing these figures is perhaps the biggest challenge we face.

Q: What has Chile done to reduce poverty?

Lagos: First, increasing investment, growth and jobs - 75 percent of the new jobs we created went to women, because women's share of the job market in Chile is very low, and the best antidote to reduce poverty is creating jobs for women. . . . Some people said, 'give them cash.' But no, we didn't give them checks. We taught them to get up on their feet according to their own possibilities. It's the only way to reduce poverty: direct policies, well focused, that do not imply political patronage, which is another serious defect of our region.

Q: A recent Globescan poll shows that Latin America is the world's region that is most critical of free-market capitalism. Can the region draw more investments with that attitude?

Lagos: I'm not surprised to find that response in Latin America. Too many countries have grown, have followed Washington's recipes, yet people haven't seen any benefits of that at their home level. Progress is seen on TV, but not at home. But investments are important. Latin America's defect is often wanting to blame others outside our hemisphere or our region for our problems. I'm not saying that there aren't things that need to be fixed - but we often forget that our first responsibility is to put our house in order. In that sense, we need clear policies to attract investments."

Asked what he will do next, Lagos said he will become president of the Club of Madrid - a group of former leaders of Latin America, Spain and Portugal. And he claimed he will not miss being in the spotlight once he steps down on Saturday.

Quoting former Spanish head of state Felipe Gonzalez, he said that ''former presidents are like those big Chinese vases that some people inherit: They are valuable objects, but nobody knows where to put them, because they are a nuisance. Therefore, it's better to be unnoticed."

I doubt that Lagos will go unnoticed. Perhaps he should become, like those big Chinese vases, a highly visible nuisance for those who - like Chavez or Cuba's Fidel Castro - claim that being a socialist in today's world means championing economic nationalism, social polarization and authoritarian rule.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.