New Paraguayan president puts people first

Fernando Lugo’s April 20 election victory means not only that rightist Colorado Party rule is at an end after 61 years, but also that once the former bishop assumes Paraguay’s presidency next August, another South American government will be in place serving social justice and national independence.

Running at the head of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, an ad hoc coalition of disaffected centrists, unionists, social movements, radical leftists and indigenous groups, Lugo won 41 percent of the vote in an election with a remarkably high 66 percent turn-out.

Next in line was Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar with 31 percent, followed by retired general Lino Oviedo, candidate of the National Union of Ethical Citizens, with 21 percent.

From 1954 to 1989, dictator Alfredo Stroessner had held sway over the Colorado Party.

The Catholic Church hierarchy expressed its disapproval of Lugo’s candidacy by refusing to accept his resignation as bishop. He had served as bishop in San Pedro, one of Paraguay’s poorest regions.

Casting himself as a consensus builder rather than a left militant, Lugo campaigned against corruption, concentrated power and sectarianism. Land reform is high on his agenda. He promises to press Brazil to renegotiate agreements on distribution of income and electric power emanating from massive hydroelectric projects shared by the two countries.

Lugo rejects the idea of a free trade agreement with the United States, and has called upon the regional trade confederation Mercosur, to which Paraguay belongs, to support the poor.

Paraguay’s statistics on poverty are the second worst in South America, exceeded only by Bolivia. Hundreds of thousands of peasants have been displaced from small land holdings which have been taken over by transnational corporations engaged in industrial-scale soy production. Not only have peasants been marginalized through land consolidation, but Paraguay’s forest cover has shrunk drastically.

Why, asked Lugo, are “there are so many differences between the 500 families who live with a first-world standard of living while the great majority live in a poverty that borders on misery?” Congratulating Lugo on “an unequivocal popular victory,” the Mexico City daily La Jornada invoked a plea that “his labors will put Paraguay on the course of democratic development, social and economic.”

But Lugo will have to overcome many hurdles. La Jornada’s Guillermo Almeyra also sees an uncertain future for the victor. Lugo’s coalition is divided between liberals and representatives of social movements. Power over Paraguay’s Congress, army, and state bureaucracy lies with entrenched elements. Lugo’s popular base is weakened by emigration of hundreds of thousands of workers to Argentina.

atwhit@ roadrunner.com