Liberation theology proponent Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who has never before held political office, became Paraguay’s president Aug. 15 in ceremonies attended by heads of state and foreign guests. Wearing an open shirt and his customary sandals, Lugo outlined goals for his five-year tenure, defined problems and paid homage to mentors and the nation. He delivered some of his inaugural address in Guaraní, Paraguay’s dominant indigenous language.

Lugo came to the presidency after winning 40 percent of votes in April as the coalition candidate of populist parties and social movements. His victory ended 61 years of rightist Colorado Party rule and became the first transfer of power in Paraguayan history accomplished peacefully by electoral means.

Lugo’s new cabinet incorporates disparate ideologies, representatives of social movements and business interests. Steering clear of partisan identification, he promises a centrist orientation, avoidance of close identification with leftist Latin American leaders and collaboration with entrenched political foes. The Paraguayan Workers Party’s criticism of alleged over-representation in his cabinet of ministers from the Liberal Party — read “neo-liberal” — hinted at future leftist dissent.

Yet 15,000 citizens assembled in Asuncion’s Congress Plaza chanted, “Lugo is president, the people are in power.” He proclaimed, “Today ends an exclusive Paraguay, a segregationist Paraguay, a Paraguay famous for corruption.” Its new leaders, he promised, will be “relentless against those who steal from the people.”

Recalling his dedication as a priest to “those that history has thrown off into exclusion and misery,” Lugo condemned the “oppressive rhetoric of all the dictatorships that have marked the history of our American homeland.”

Inviting colleagues to follow his example, Lugo promised to take no salary: “The poor need more than I do.” He quoted Elvio Romero, who observed: “I am here with others on my road — the just, the poor, the persecuted, and the rebellious.” Lugo reiterated: “I am here, dear Elvio.” The late communist poet lived most of his life in exile.

Lugo cited as priorities war against corruption, land reform and repatriation of energy income. He warned European-descended Paraguayans to respect indigenous land ownership and said “impunity for [inflicting] persecution and humiliation” was over.

Paraguay’s National Peasant Organization announced a 100-day grace period for the initiation of land reform, during which its activists would desist from land occupations. Negotiations with Brazil are soon to begin over bolstering income derived from the shared Itaipu and Yacyreta dams situated on the Parana River.

History casts a shadow over the new government. Oligarchic rule has prevailed since Paraguay’s independence from Spain in 1811, beginning with the 52-year dominion by the family of Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. Dictator Alfredo Stroessner held forth for 35 years ending in 1989.

Wars have devastated the country, notably the 1865-1870 onslaught from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay that killed 90 percent of boys and male adults. War-related financial distress forced indebted landowners to transfer properties to foreign buyers, a process leading to the persisting pattern of large land holdings.

Suffering continues, much of it due to exploitation at the hands of agricultural corporations owning 75 percent of Paraguay’s farmland. Fifty percent of the adults in this country of 6.1 million people earn less than $2 dollars a day; 38 percent lack work and over one million Paraguayans have emigrated. Some 500 families own 90 percent of the land. Paraguay’s rural population fell from 67 percent in 1989 to 30 percent this year.

The culprit is soy production, up 69 percent over five years. Paraguay has become the world’s fourth largest producer. Foreign landowners and agents, mostly Brazilian, derive huge profits from exports for biodiesel fuel. Soy accounts for half the nation’s gross domestic product. Over five million acres of forest have been sacrificed to soy farming.

President Lugo’s presidency coincides with potential quickening of struggle between rich and poor, entrenched and excluded. Whether collaboration with the powerful and compromise among allies — each essential for survival — will serve to bolster his movement and mission is uncertain.

In any event, “This country deserves it,” declared Eduardo Galeano, referring to a Lugo presidency. The famous Uruguayan writer, present at the inauguration, suggested that Paraguay “could not keep on with pain incessantly.”


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.