By Daniel Dombey, US diplomatic correspondent
There was a certain comic opera quality to the Uruguayan presidential inauguration that Hillary Clinton attended today. Compared with neighbouring states such as Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a minnow, though a wealthy, well educated and sometimes idyllic one.
And whereas other parts of Latin America would grind to a halt on the day a new president took the oath of office, today just a small sprinkling of sympathisers, waving Che Guevara flags and drinking mate, stood outside the Uruguayan Congress, where the speechifying took place. A somewhat Lilliputian honour guard manned the steps to the building and there, inside, in the balcony rather than in the main chamber with the heads of state, sat the person who is probably the most powerful woman in the world.
Mrs Clinton’s attendance at the ceremonies for Jose Mujica, the former guerrilla leader turned Uruguayan president, was clearly intended as a sign of goodwill towards a region that all too often has complained of being overlooked, under-appreciated and exploited by the US.
But in a hurried appearance with Mrs Clinton a tieless Mr Mujica sounded an odd note of humility of his own.
“We were very surprised to see that a black would have become the president of the US,” he said, with Mrs Clinton standing to his side. “That is something that we had never thought that it would be possible, and that was out of prejudice on our side.”
It wasn’t the sort of remark the Secretary of State usually hears her counterparts make at press conferences. But then Uruguay – a country that has sought to contrast itself in the past from multi-racial Brazil – isn’t on the most-trodden diplomatic circuit. And in a region which in past decades was haunted by military rule, the country’s small scale, almost eccentric approach – complete with clarinet-wielding soldiers – only adds to its charm.