Paraguay: how Lugo Méndez went from Bishop to President

By Rodrigo Acuña

The Diplomat

May 2008

The recent election of ex-Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo Méndez in Paraguay has seen another leftist leader take office in Latin America. With a ten-point lead over his nearest rival Blanca Ovelar, Lugo’s centre-left Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) obtained a convincing 41 per cent of the vote seeing the end of the Colorado Party’s rule since 1947.

As one observer has noted, throughout Paraguay, Lugo’s victory has been celebrated as if the era of General Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship (1954-1989) were finally at an end.

Before he came under international attention, throughout Paraguay, the 56-year-old Lugo was simply known as the “Bishop of the Poor” from San Pedro - one of the most northern and impoverished provinces of the landlocked country. Employed as a teacher in his youth, in 1977 Lugo entered the priesthood. That same year, he moved to Ecuador and worked as a missionary with that country’s indigenous peoples until 1982. In 1992, Lugo was appointed head of the Divine Word in Paraguay and in 1994 was ordained a Bishop.

What is also commonly not known about Lugo is his personal and family’s resistance to the Stroessner dictatorship. As the distinguished Brazilian liberation theologist and Dominican friar Frei Betto recently noted, during the General’s rule Lugo’s father was detained more than 20 times while three of his brothers were tortured and expelled from Paraguay. In 1983, Lugo was also expelled from the country because his sermons were considered subversive.

By 1996, he hosted the fifth Latin American Congress of Basic Ecclesial Communities in San Pedro. In 2005, according to Andrew Nickson from the University of Birmingham, Lugo was forced to resign from his post in 2005 by the Catholic hierarchy “because of his support for invasions of large landholdings by landless families”. After 100,000 people signed a petition for the ex-Bishop to run for President, in December 2006 he accepted the offer and resigned from the priesthood.

Throughout the election, the ex-Bishop-turned-politician faced considerable opposition.

Out going President and strong ally of Washington, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, charged Lugo as a social agitator whose political supporters wanted to “burn properties, service stations and other resources to upset the social peace". Duarte, as reported in the Los Angeles Times on April 20, said “the one responsible for the violence and death is going to be Fernando Lugo and his band of delinquents and kidnappers”.

Duarte, according to another report, claimed that Venezuela was involved in the Paraguayan elections, while posters bearing Lugo’s resemblance labelled him the “ambassador” of the Colombian rebels.

Lugo however has kept his distance from Venezuela. Although the ex-Bishop has expressed admiration for Hugo Chávez’s social policies aimed at reducing poverty, he has also said he sees himself politically somewhere between Chávez and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

Undoubtedly, if Lugo is serious about serving the needs of most Paraguayans, his administration will face tremendous challenges.

For a start, Paraguay has never really recovered from the brutal right-wing Stroessner dictatorship.

In the past, although United States aid for Paraguay was not as substantial, as with the case of other military regimes in Latin America, it was nevertheless crucial to propping up Stroessner. In 1974, Amnesty International’s Report on Torture noted that “although Stroessner has said that he considers the American Ambassador to be an ex-officio member of his Cabinet, the US has never officially acknowledged or taken steps to prevent the use of torture by a government which appears to by very much within its sphere of influence”.

In 2000, the ties between Washington and Asuncion continued as a US airbase in Estigarribia was built with a capacity to host 16,000 North American troops. Further construction of US military bases has also been discussed. However, most Paraguayans have become critical of their country’s ties to the White House.

Similarly, people have asked that their government revise its hydroelectric contracts with Brazil and Argentina. Established under Stroessner’s rule, hydroelectric plants in Itaipú and Yacyretá provide Brazil with cheap energy below market prices.

Once in office, Lugo aims to increase the cost of energy to Brazil while also carrying out a land reform program since 2.5 per cent of the population owns 70 per cent of productive lands. Roughly 50 per cent of Paraguayans live below the poverty line - 35 per cent in abject poverty.

With the Colorado Party controlling vast sectors of the state apparatus though, Lugo as President will require substantial political courage to carry out his popular mandate. Support from other leftist governments in the region will be vital.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .