Monday, April 21, 2008


Like the thousands who are out celebrating as I write, I am absolutely delighted that ex-bishop Fernando Lugo (pictured) has won the general election in Paraguay, his centre-left coalition terminating sixty years of corruption and elite dominance by the Colarado Party which once propped up General Alfredo Stroessner's systematically brutal dictatorship. What the victory will mean in terms of the immediate social and economic prospects of the very poorest, and of regional negotiations about a fairer deal for the country, has yet to be seen. There's a good, critical analysis here.

The task facing Lugo is indeed mountainous, given the grip of the wealthy and their political and military surrogates on Paraguay, the fragile and disparate coalition the president-elect heads, and the hugely raised expectations of indigenous people and those pushed to the margins for many years. But their new leader is a man of principle and determination, if not great experience in the tough arena of governance. Whether he will be able to resist or re-channel the economic and political constraints he faces is yet to be seen. There is a mixture of hope and cynicism in the air right now.

The response of the Catholic hierarchy, both inside the country and in the Vatican, has been predictably unpleasant. Lugo decided that he would have to leave his priestly role to pursue political change in favour of the poorest, but he did so out of deep commitment arising from the gospel. None of this has been acknowledged by conservative Church leaders, who have covertly sided with Colarado and have denounced Lugo for "abandoning Catholicism". He has been pointedly denied the laicisation he sought. It seems that Rome wishes to eliminate any sign of progressive or radical leanings within its leadership.

The treatment of Lugo calls to mind Pope John Paul II's finger-wagging condemnation of Fr Ernesto Cardenal, who took up a post as culture minister in the first Sandinista government in Nicaragua from 1979-90. By contrast, Church figures have been tolerated in their support for, or collaboration with, Latin American dictators. One priest even took charge of a section of the army in Colombia in the 1960s. But as soon as an alliance is forged between grassroots people's movements and clerics, the Vatican stamps down vigorously.

It's all very sad. Lugo was right to set aside his priestly ministry to follow a political vocation, and should be allowed to do so with honour. Many will see the continual thread of ordination in his move; namely his vocation to serve the poor (which is one of the vows a bishop makes).

As Andrew Nickson comments: "Lugo clearly represents a serious challenge to the status quo of Paraguay's traditional non-programmatic political culture, supported by powerful vested interests that arose during the Stroessner dictatorship and that have consolidated their privileges in the subsequent democratic transition." But he will need more than will power to bring about change.

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