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Q&A: A Bishop with His (Sandalled) Feet on the Ground

Interview with Paraguayan President-elect Fernando Lugo

ASUNCION, May 2 2008 (IPS) - Fernando Lugo has rocketed into Paraguayan history. Not only is he the first Catholic bishop to be elected president, but he has also ended 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party.

Fernando Lugo and supporters Credit: Courtesy of APC

Fernando Lugo and supporters Credit: Courtesy of APC

He hopes to change Paraguay’s negative image as one of the most corrupt countries in Latin America and the world, and to bring indigenous peoples, "the owners of the land," out of destitution and indigence.

The 56-year-old Lugo is an unassuming and affable person, who speaks slowly, in the measured tones of a sermon rather than a political speech.

His recent past as a Catholic priest is reflected even in his manner of dress. Although he no longer wears a cassock, he continues to sport Franciscan sandals, and says he has never put on a tie in his life. He lives in a modest house on the outskirts of Asunción, and says he has no intention of moving into the presidential palace, known as Mburuvicha Róga (Guaraní for "the chief’s house").

Lugo was born into a middle-class family in the southern province of Itapuá. His parents, Guillermo Lugo and Maximina Méndez, and other relatives were dissident activists in the Colorado Party, or National Republican Association (ANR). Some of them were persecuted during the bloody regime of the late Colorado dictator General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989).

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977 and rose rapidly within the ranks of the church, becoming Paraguay’s youngest bishop in 1994. He was sent to the province of San Pedro, one of the poorest areas of the country, where he became known for supporting landless peasants in rural conflicts.

It was during this period that he earned the title of "bishop of the poor."

In 2005, Lugo requested retirement as a priest and entered the political fray, criticising the government of President Nicanor Duarte, of the Colorado Party, who leaves office on Aug. 15. The following year he registered as a presidential candidate after 100,000 people signed a petition asking him to stand.

This incurred the displeasure of the Vatican, which refused his request to return to the condition of a layperson in the church and, instead, suspended him "a divinis" from his pastoral duties. Under this sentence, Lugo remains a bishop, but is not in good standing with the Vatican, and is forbidden, indefinitely, to exercise his ministry.

According to the Catholic Church’s canon law, episcopal ordination is a lifelong sacrament, and prohibits priests from entering politics.

As leader of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), a mixed bag of parties from the right, centre, left and extreme left of the political spectrum, it took Lugo only eight months of campaigning to bury six decades of Colorado Party domination in Paraguay, including Stroessner’s 35-year-long dictatorship.

General Stroessner died in 2006 at the age of 93, in exile in Brazil.

In interviews with IPS correspondent David Vargas, the president-elect talked about the fall of the Colorado Party and his future relations with it, his plans for landless and indigenous people, his strategy to combat the corruption that is so deeply rooted in the Paraguayan state, and his relationship with the Catholic Church.

IPS: How does it feel to have defeated the Colorado Party after it has been in power for so many years? FERNANDO LUGO: I don’t want to take that attitude. My father was an authentic, principled Colorado, and so was my mother. It’s not a question of winning or losing, but of building. We have to build the Paraguay that everyone deserves.

What happened was the outcome of several problems in the Colorado Party: its dilapidated state, loss of contact with its bases, and internal conflicts that could not be resolved. All these elements played a part in the elections.

IPS: How does a bishop become president? FL: My leadership and candidacy were born in the rural areas. I was a bishop for 11 years in the poorest region of the country, I worked hard and was committed to my pastoral tasks, and I gained the confidence of many layers of Paraguayan society.

Then I moved to Asunción, where I was offered the headship of a school, and I accepted because teaching is like living and breathing for me. I spent nearly 40 years in primary, secondary and university classrooms. What means most to me is the challenge and the confidence of all those people.

IPS: What will your government be like? FL: It will be open, honest and transparent. We must change our image as a corrupt, feeble, hopeless country. We think it is possible to make genuine changes, and we shall fight with all our might against corruption. We want Paraguayans to feel vindicated, and God willing in a short time we may be recognised again as an honest country.

IPS: What will be your first steps as president? FL: First of all, to look after indigenous people who are in an appalling state of poverty. I don’t want any more indigenous people dying of tuberculosis or starvation. It’s utterly wrong that they, who are the owners of the land, should not have food to eat.

I also want an extremely capable cabinet. I want to get a team of experts together to talk about electrical energy with Argentina and Brazil, to plan the agrarian reform which is among our proposals, and to change the constitution so that there is an independent judiciary. We are going to do everything possible to improve living conditions for campesino (peasant) families.

IPS: What can we expect in terms of foreign policy? FL: The APC backs the Mercosur (Southern Common Market, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), because we can’t get ahead alone.

Paraguay cannot continue to be an island, it can’t remain in the political wilderness. I dream, as no doubt (Latin American independence heroes) Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín and other great dreamers did, of a Latin America where people live in unity and brotherhood.

I am particularly interested in Bolivia, and I think the time has come to develop more fruitful relations with that country.

I want to talk to (Bolivian President) Evo Morales to find out about his country’s experience when it renegotiated gas prices with Argentina and Brazil, because one of the APC government’s priorities will be to reassess the price of Paraguay’s principal resource, energy, with our neighbours. I want trade and energy relations to be an important priority.

IPS: One of your main campaign promises was to renegotiate the Treaty of Itaipú (governing the massive bilateral Itaipú hydroelectric dam) with Brazil. How do you plan to do that? FL: The first step is to bring together a team of experts with the ability to take part in the negotiations. As Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva himself said, despite our differences, we can seek agreements.

IPS: As president, what will your relations with the Catholic Church be like? FL: I hope that my status as a bishop who has been suspended "a divinis" can be changed, for my own peace of mind. The decision is up to the Vatican, and I will accept whatever it decides.

I have always strongly maintained that anywhere in the world, anyone who radically accepts the life of Jesus Christ must also live the way he lived. I believe that defending the gospel values of truth against so many lies, justice against so much injustice, and peace against so much violence, is like rowing against the current.

IPS: How will you manage to govern, with the Colorado Party in opposition? FL: That’s what dialogue and agreements are for. The composition of parliament has not been defined yet, and when it is, we will no doubt search for the right strategies to be able to count on a group of legislators who support the government’s major decisions, and if possible to construct the majority needed to make governance more straightforward.

IPS: How do you plan to combat rural poverty? FL: I am going to carry out comprehensive agrarian reform. There are 300,000 families without land of their own, who deserve a decent life. I am going to order the creation of a land registry, to see what land is available.

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