Opinion surveys suggest former Bishop Fernando Lugo will win Paraguay’s presidential elections set for April 20. One poll estimates a 40 percent total for Lugo, 26.6 percent for Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar, and 22.4 percent for General Lino Oviedo, representing his own National Union of Ethical Citizens Party. Another survey projects the results at 31.1 percent, 25.5 percent, and 23.9 percent respectively.

The election is unfolding as new politics vie with old, the old order divides, chaos assails the poor, Washington meddles, and a charismatic novice politician emerges. As bishop in San Pedro for over ten years, Lugo inspired, helped organize, and marched with dispossessed peasants.

Lugo protests corruption and U.S. intervention, calls for land redistribution, emergency social assistance, and independence for state institutions. Invoking national sovereignty, he insists upon state control over the huge Guarani Aquifer and hydroelectric power generated in tandem with Brazil.

The Colorado Party’s tenure, marked by corruption, has lasted 61 years, 35 of them under U.S.-backed dictator Alfredo Stroessner. For support and payoffs, adherents are awarded jobs, offices, and favors. State control of agencies, institutions, commerce, and services has enabled the party to arrange for ongoing employment of 200,000 people, 95 percent of them party members. Unemployment nationally approaches 37 percent.

Outgoing President Nicanor Duarte backed Paraguay’s entry into South America’s independence minded Mercosur trade confederation. Yielding to Brazilian pressure, he opposed deployment of 500 U.S. troops in Paraguay in 2005. Conservative Duarte, who according to surveys is Latin America’s most unpopular president, likes to portray himself as closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez than to President Bush.

Thinking that expanded government controls don’t jibe with neoliberal tenets like privatization and cuts in state services, opposition forces within the Colorado Party had backed the candidacy of Vice President Luis Castiglioni, a lobbyist for multinational agribusinesses and a friend of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They were aided in their efforts by U.S. ambassador James Cason (formerly posted to Cuba, where he reportedly paid off dissidents). But intra-party voting Dec. 16 gave Education minister Blanca Ovelar the edge over Castiglioni.

The Catholic hierarchy has yet to honor Lugo’s resignation as bishop, constitutionally required for a presidential run. The coalition he heads, the Patriotic Alliance for Change, melds centrist parties, social democrats, far left formations and social movements. Paraguay’s Communist Party is included.

The popular mobilization that has brought Lugo to prominence has provoked “persecution, scare tactics, detentions, and even killings,” according to one of its leaders. The toll so far is over 100 murders and 2,000 jailings. Responding to the Feb. 23 murder of Geraldino Rotela and the wounding of his brother, a spokesperson for their organization, the People’s Equality Movement, blamed “state terrorism.”

The resistance Lugo epitomizes is founded on grim realities associated with free rein global capitalism.

In 2006, a Cargill CEO characterized the biofuel industry as a “gold rush,” and increasingly in South America, soy is used to produce biodiesel fuel. Worldwide demand for soy is projected to grow by 60 percent over 12 years. Over the last six years, soy production has expanded by more than 10 percent annually in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Paraguay, the world’s fourth leading exporter of soy, dedicates 64 percent of its agricultural land to soy, double such acreage 10 years ago.

Paraguay’s land distribution is the most unequal in Latin America; 1 percent of proprietors own 77 percent of the land, and 351 landowners control 24 million acres. Coincident with the soy boom, some 90,000 peasant families have been forced off their land.

Rural residents now make up 30 percent of the country’s 6.5 million people, down from 67 percent in 1989. Two million former peasants live on the outskirts of the capital city, Asunción, or have emigrated. Pesticide and herbicide exposure plague remaining rural dwellers.

Last year, 21 per cent of the population, 320,000 Paraguayans, lived under conditions of extreme poverty, up from 15 percent the year before. Overall poverty in 2002 reached 46 percent.

Backers say Fernando Lugo is another President Chavez of Venezuela. Reports of Ambassador Cason’s payoffs to U.S. acolytes suggest close attention by the Bush administration to stirrings of independence in tormented Paraguay.

The outgoing president may also have a personal stake in shoring up U.S. influence in the region. Late in 2006, reports surfaced that his family bought a 99,000 acre tract in northern Paraguay, close to the border with Bolivia, rich in oil and natural gas reserves.

Emile Schepers contributed to this article.