At a new health center for the poor, Lagos explained that just as the market alone would never support the construction of such a facility, the government could not afford it without the help of a vibrant economy. In a country like Chile, which depends on trade for 80 percent of its income, separating the two would be suicidal, he suggested.
But despite Chile's remarkable economic progress, some of the problems that greeted Lagos in 2000 remain. Income disparity between rich and poor is as wide as it was when he took office, and poor social mobility is considered the nation's worst problem. While Santiago, Chile's capital, boasts dozens of gleaming new office buildings, the landscape that greeted Lagos this week included scenes of rural poverty -- tin roofs, unpaved roads and dusty miners walking to work.
President Ricardo Lagos attended the inauguration of Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez in Montevideo this month.
(Enrique Marcarian -- Reuters)
Lagos will not be able to tackle those problems right after his term. Chile's constitution does not allow consecutive terms.
"Of course there are broken dreams," said Ricardo Nuñez, a Socialist Party senator who once shared Allende's ideals of a democratic socialist revolution. "Of course we would have liked an economic system far from the neo-liberal system we have today."
While Lagos's cautious economic policies have disappointed some on Chile's left, his social positions have provided targets of dissent for the right. The Catholic Church is an important part of Chilean politics, and Lagos -- who has been married twice and is not overtly religious -- has angered some in the church with liberal policies, including last year's legalization of divorce.
But across the domestic political spectrum, Lagos has won praise for standing up to the Bush administration. In 2003, when Chile had a seat on the U.N. Security Council, it voted against the war in Iraq.
Last November, during a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Santiago, Lagos balked when Bush's security detail asked that all guests at an elaborate state dinner pass through metal detectors. Considering it an insult, Lagos canceled the dinner. The Chilean public loved it.
It has been a delicate balancing act, analysts say. Internationally, , Lagos is seen as an economic partner who plays by the rules of the free market. At home, he is seen as a protector of his country's interests.
Some supporters and analysts have suggested that Lagos could serve as a role model for newer Latin American leaders who face similar competing imperatives. There also have been suggestions that he become a regional political troubleshooter and counselor after he leaves office next year.
But Lagos seems content to stand slightly apart.
"Brazil, Mexico, Argentina -- they can take leadership roles," he demurred during a stop on his tour. "We're a small country."