Radical ex-bishop ends one party rule in Paraguay

By staff writers
April 21, 2008

A former Catholic bishop who has campaigned vigorously for the poor has won Paraguay's presidential election to end more than 60 years of monopoly rule by the party that once backed vicious dictator General Alfredo Stroessner.

Fernando Lugo Mendez won nearly 41 per cent support, a lead of 10 percentage points over ruling party candidate Blanca Ovelar, with results in from 88 per cent of polling stations, the electoral court announced yesterday.

Ovelar, the first woman to run for president in Paraguay, conceded defeat on Sunday night as tens of thousands of Lugo's supporters rallied in a central square in the capital Asuncion. Firecrackers resounded throughout the city and caravans of cars and trucks clogged the streets, honking their horns, report news agencies.

Lugo defied a conservative Church hierarchy who gave tacit support to the dominant Colarado party, which continued to rule Paraguay through patronage, corruption and electoral manipulation even after Stroessner was deposed in a military coup in February 1989.

The new president is inspired by liberation theology, and has campaigned against inequality, neoliberal policies and endemic corruption. But the mild-mannered and popular ex-cleric emphasises that he is a bridge builder, and his victorious left-of-centre party is a wide coalition of liberals, workers, indigenous people, human rights activists, radical Christians and traditional leftists.

"Today we've written a new chapter in our nation's political history," the 56-year-old Lugo told reporters this morning.

Fernando Lugo left his post as bishop three years ago, saying he felt powerless to help Paraguay's poor. He launched his political platform the following year.

The Vatican has been cold and unsupportive towards the new president. Lugo became known as ' the bishop of the poor' and continually challenged Paraguay's traditional elite, questioning why "there are so many differences between the 500 families who live with a first world standard of living while the great majority live in a poverty that borders on misery."

In December 2007, Lugo took what he described as a "difficult and emotional decision" to set aside his ordained minsitry in order "to fulfil a vocation to to change the country for the good."

Paraguay's Catholic hierarchy swiftly denounced him. "Monsignor Lugo is in a state of contempt, exposing himself to the punishment of excommunication," said the head of the country's Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Ignacio Gogorza. "Lugo does not have the permission of the Vatican to go into politics, so he is leaving Catholicism... [but] he cannot leave the cloth simply by resigning."

On 1 February 2008, the Vatican denied Lugo's request to be laicized. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re wrote that Lugo must "remain in the clerical state," claiming that a bishop as a presidential candidate would be "a cause of confusion and division amongst the faithful and an offense to the laity."

The Paraguayan electorate delivered a decisive verdict against that claim yesterday, and radical Christians say that the situation is not that Lugo has deserted the Church, but that the Church has effectively sided with the elite against the needs of ordinary people and the egalitarian dynamic of the Gospel.

As an institution, the Catholic Church, though socially conservative, has steered well clear of the corruption that has infected government, and is still widely respected. But there has been growing disillusion with its ineffectiveness at the grassroots.

Lugo calls himself an independent and has chosen not to be directly identified with Latin America's more aggressive left-wing populists, like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Nevertheless, his election marks a further drift away from the right in the region's politics, and a challenge to the dominance of US policies that have favoured the wealthy at the expense of those on the margins of society.

A forceful orator both in Spanish and Guaraní, the indigenous language that most Paraguayans speak, Lugo declared during his campaign that "united in our diversity we will not allow our dreams of a better future to be frustrated."

"I'm supporting Lugo because he cared about poor people when he was bishop and I think he's honest and won't steal from the Paraguayan people like all the other politicians have," Pedro Ramirez, a 19-year-old street vendor told reporters.

Fraud allegations and bitter divisions marred the ruling party's primary election and weakened support for Ovelar, a former education minister whose mentor is outgoing President Nicanor Duarte Frutos.

A landlocked country dwarfed by richer neighbours Argentina and Brazil, Paraguay relies economically on agricultural and hydroelectric power exports. But nearly four in every 10 Paraguayans are poor and many are tired of widespread corruption.

The movement that brought President-elect Lugo to power has been long in its development. In 2006, a 50,000 strong demonstration took over Asunción to protest Colorado Party rule.

Unionized workers, and progressive and indigenous organizations then began to unite behind the ex-Catholic bishop, who comes from one of Paraguay's poorest areas.

Lugo has in the past considered an alliance with the traditional and conservative opposition coalition, Concertación Nacional, although no agreement was formalized and a deal does not seem necessary at present.

Fernando Lugo was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1977 and worked as a missionary in indigenous communities in Ecuador until 1982. He then spent 10 years studying at the Vatican, at which time he was appointed head of the Divine Word order in Paraguay. In 1994 he became the Bishop of the Paraguayan department of San Pedro.

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