With a few words, Lugo turns the tables

Sometimes the deepest of revolutions can take place with just a few gestures: the choice of language you use to address your people. How you dress. Who you appoint. The shoes on your feet.

These can point to a profound shift in power much more than crowds of angry sans-culottes or fire-breathing political speeches.

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Last Friday Fernando Lugo  - a former Catholic bishop swept to victory as president of Paraguay on an anti-corruption ticket -- brought to an end the longest period of one-party rule anywhere in the world. The Colorado party, which was in power for 61 years, was synonymous with the state -- and with the ruling families who controlled the smuggling rings which made them fabulously rich. "Today begins the story of a Paraguay whose authorities and people will be implacably against the country’s thieves," said Lugo on Friday.

He has since appointed an Indian woman as Paraguay’s minister for indigenous people. In a country dominated by a European-descended clique, the naming of Margarita Mbywang, a longtime campaigner for the Indians, was breathtaking.

As a child she was kidnapped in the jungle and sold into servitude on the haciendas -- the large estates owned by Paraguay’s ruling class.

She is not a Guarani, as Paraguayans (at least in part) mostly are, but an Ache, of which there are only a few hundred thousand in this landlocked Latin American country of 5m. Her task will be to advocate on behalf of the forest Indians in Paraguay -- reckoned to number around 90,000.

President Lugo was demonstrating in this appointment what he promised in his first presidential address: that his Government would pay special attention to the poorest in society and, among these, to the Indians.

He said all this with the presidential sash draped over an ao po’i, the traditional garment of the Guaranis, and with sandals on his feet. And he began his address, astonishingly, in Guarani -- the language which most poor Paraguayans speak and which rich Paraguayans would rather die than be seen speaking.

It is hard, watching all this through rubbed eyes, not to think back to the eighteenth-century Jesuits standing with the Guarani against the encroachments of Spanish and Portuguese slavers. Many will remember the depiction of this remarkable chapter in the 1986 British film The Mission, directed by Roland Joffe, with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons playing missionaries who chose to be extinguished with the people they had given their lives to.

Since then, there has been no shortage of sandal-wearing Catholic priests  -- and one bishop, in particular, of the diocese of San Pedro -- standing with Guarani Indians against rapacious European landowners and traders. 

But someone should really get Roland Joffe out of retirement to make The MissionII: the story of how, nearly 250 years later, it all gets reversed. How that bishop of San Pedro, rather than being martyred, becomes president, carried into power by Indians voting in an election. The film closes with the president addressing the nation in Guarani.

It wouldn’t work? Too fairy tale? You’re right. Wake me up, someone.

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