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Peru’s new chief vows to help poor

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LIMA, Peru — Peru's protester-turned-President Alejandro Toledo took office Saturday, vowing to beat his country's crushing poverty in a "new dawn of irrevocable democracy."

The 55-year-old centrist economist, who grew up in a small adobe brick house with no electricity or running water, took his oath for a five-year term, swearing "by God, the nation and the poor of Peru" in a solemn ceremony in Congress.

After receiving the red-and-white presidential sash, he walked across the floor to pay tribute to elder statesman and former President Fernando Belaunde — and paused to kiss his father, Anatolio, who looked on from the front row.

"Today a new dawn of irrevocable democracy begins," he said in his maiden speech to Congress and assembled leaders and dignitaries from Latin America and beyond.

He was cheered and clapped, but opposition lawmakers held protest banners. Hundreds of fans later ran behind his open-topped car as he toured the streets, blowing kisses and saluting, his arms outstretched savior-style.

"After 10 years of corruption, the light of democracy has come," said Luisa Pilares, a 60-year-old biologist.

Declaring there to be "no room for discouragement or doubt," the man who made his name leading street protests last year against ousted ex-President Alberto Fujimori and tainted polls vowed to focus on fighting poverty.

"People want this government," he said—pointing to his presidential sash—"to deliver its promise of more work" for Peru, more than half of whose 26 million population is poor.

He vowed to keep his pledges—which include raising public sector pay and cutting taxes—"with responsibility."

With a stagnant $54 billion mining- and fishing-based economy, nearly half the country who did not vote for him in a June runoff to woo, and a hung Congress, the untested former World Bank consultant has a tough task ahead. Analysts say he will have to deliver fast or face strikes and protests.

Toledo takes charge after a rollercoaster year of corruption scandals sparked by jailed ex-spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who controlled Peru's courts, Congress, media and military under Fujimori's hard-line 1990-2000 rule.

Ironically Fujimori, who was fired last November as "morally unfit" and is holed up in Japan, celebrates his 63rd birthday on Saturday, which is also Peru's independence day.

In a message on a Web site he set up this week, he said he was "nostalgic" for Peru on its national day but had left a positive legacy and history would "have a place for my rule."

"Pachacutec" and protests

Toledo was cheered from the floor as "Pachacutec"—his nickname recalling a mighty 15th century Inca emperor.

He prides himself on being the first "cholo"—a mixed-race Peruvian of Andean Indian descent—elected to lead the country in 500 years, and honors his roots at the famous mountaintop Inca citadel Machu Picchu on Sunday.

Toledo and his guests later signed the Declaration of Machu Picchu, designed to boost tourism and cultural integration.

In Congress, the three remaining lawmakers from Fujimori's party held protest signs, one bearing the Inca commandment in the native Quechua language—"Ama Lluclla," or "Do Not Lie."

They also waved others reading "Respect our votes," and "We will not be silent," as well as a picture a 13-year-old girl, whom some allege is his daughter, and a sign saying: "DNA."

Toledo denies charges of having a daughter outside marriage and has won a paternity suit. He also rejected allegations of a drugs habit after reports he tested positive for cocaine in 1998 and was seen in a seedy hotel with three women.

Toledo kicked off his big day ladling out oatmeal to children in a Lima shantytown.

"Let's hope he remembers the poor, that's the only thing I ask of him," said Fortunato Diaz, 28, who is unemployed.

Exactly a year ago, Toledo was leading street protests against Fujimori's inauguration.

Six people died at the time when a bank was torched; Toledo says the violence was orchestrated by Montesinos. His first act as president was to lay a memorial wreath at the bank.

Toledo takes over from Valentin Paniagua, widely respected for a quiet but efficient eight-month term in which his government stabilized the economy, overhauled corrupt courts and the military and brought Montesinos home for trial.

Toledo announced a top-to-bottom revamp of the military and police and creation of anti-corruption and anti-drugs czars.

He later swore in his cabinet, asking them to swear "by the country, God and the poor." With key members close to big business, some analysts fear a lurch to the right that could clash with Toledo's pledges.