Paraguay's fresh start under a bishop-president

Fernando Lugo, the Catholic bishop who became president of Paraguay, was sworn in last Friday. His assumption, on the Feast of the Assumption, took place in Asuncion, the country’s capital named after -- you guessed it  -- Our Lady of the Assumption.

But there are so many other remarkable features of Lugo’s victory that even this coincidence pales in comparison.

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He is not the first priest to become president in recent times -- remember Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitian president in the 1990s? But he is the first former Catholic bishop in living memory to do so.

It is quite remarkable, given the hostility that Rome has traditionally shown to clerics seeking political office -- and especially clerics identified with the liberationist wing of the Latin-American Church -- that Pope Benedict acceded to his request to be reduced to the lay state in order to run for president. Compare with the cold shoulder which Pope John Paul II gave Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua in the 1980s -- or the hostility which Aristide faced in the 1990s.

Much has to do with Lugo’s unimpeachable integrity. When he says, ""I entered politics so Paraguay can stop being known to the world as the country of drug trafficking, corruption and illegality ... I didn’t come to steal or get rich", you know he means it. Typically, he spent his first day in office in his former diocese of San Pedro -- among the poorest

Friday’s swearing-in was the first time in Paraguay’s 197-year-old history that a government has willingly handed over power following an election. It has taken Lugo to mark the end of a 61-year stranglehold on the presidency by the Colorado Party, the plaything of the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.

I first went to Paraguay in the 1980s, when the main square in Asuncion had two flashing neon signs: one said, "Peace, jobs and prosperity with STROESSNER" and above it: "Drink Coca-Cola". It was a suffocating regime -- about half of Asuncion, they said, was on the government payroll as informers. To describe the Colorado Party as "corrupt" is just not adequate. The party represented the interests of a few families, the ones who owned and ran everything -- the cross-border smuggling operations, the duty-free zones close to the Brazilian border, the land and the factories. In a sense there was no corruption, because there was no distinction between the state and those families.

And most Paraguayans were, and are, extremely poor: Guarani-speaking Indians and mestizos who supported the European-descended, fabulously wealthy upper class.

Lugo’s victory was overwhelming, because he was voted for by that poor majority which until his arrival had been almost wholly disenfranchised from Paraguayan politics.He has promised to close that gap between rich and poor, and to clean up the state.

Will they let him? When it is time to wrest some of the grip which Paraguay’s families hold on the economy, there is a very strong risk of him being assassinated.  An alternative scenario -- very familiar to students of Latin-American history -- is that Lugo will initiate some kind of agrarian reform, which will then acquire a momentum of its own, leading to spontaneous land seizures. That is a scenario that could see the army moving against Lugo.

But the Colorado Party is so discredited, Lugo has a fair chance of success -- if he can build a strong enough alliance of the poor and middle classes, keep the army happy, and solve some of the country’s pressing problems, not least its dependence on foreign oil. Paraguay is wedged between Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, and must play relations with each carefully.

If he succeeds, the idea that bishops can be "lent" to the Latin-American states to clean them up may start to catch on.

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