Bolívar to Take Asunción
by Paul Haste
www.dissidentvoice.org/, May 29th,
Former Catholic priest, Fernando Lugo
Méndez, is almost certain to be the presidential candidate
of a rising leftist opposition to the perpetual rule of Paraguay's
Colorado Party in the 2008 elections.
A May opinion poll in the Asunción
newspaper Última Hora indicated that 40.8% of Paraguayans
intended to vote for Lugo, against just 9% for the probable ruling
party candidate supported by the current president, Nicanor Duarte.
Should Lugo be elected, Paraguay will
become the latest Latin American nation to spurn the United States
and reject the divisive neoliberal policies that have only further
enriched an exclusive elite at the expense of the indigenous and
That Paraguay, controlled since 1946 by
the Colorado (or 'Red') Party - including the 34 year extreme
right wing military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner
- should even contemplate joining Venezuela and Bolivia and most
of Latin America in electing a progressive leftist as president,
demonstrates just how far politics have changed on this continent.
Not since an attempted revolution against
the fascist dictator Morínigo in March 1947, has Paraguay
experienced such a concerted and united challenge for political
control from the left. Since the rightist Colorado party's victory
in the civil war of that year, political repression, authoritarianism
and single party rule had denied space to workers, their unions,
and indigenous Guaraní, leftist and communist activists
to organize or oppose the government.
Even after Stroessner was deposed in a
military coup in February 1989, the Colorado Party has continued
to rule Paraguay through patronage and corruption - utilizing
their advantage of decades of elitist control of the country to
manipulate successive presidential elections - with disastrous
The General who overthrew Stroessner,
Andrés Ródriquez Pedotti, who had amassed a large
fortune during the dictatorship, was accused of profiting from
heroin trafficking and ultimately denied a US visa even though
he was president. His successor, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, appointed
Stroessner's supporters to government positions and on leaving
office was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 4 years' imprisonment.
The next Colorado administration saw the
Marzo Paraguayo events in March 1999, when then president, Raúl
Cubas, tried to pardon General Lino Oviedo who had been imprisoned
for attempting a military coup in 1996. Cubas' own vice-president,
Luís María Argaña, instituted impeachment
proceedings against Cubas, but was assassinated in the capital,
Asunción, sparking riots and demonstrations which Cubas
attempted to suppress by putting tanks on the streets.
After eight protesters were killed by
the military, representatives in Congress voted to dismiss Cubas
from the presidency, but before the Senate could ratify the impeachment,
Cubas resigned and fled to Brazil. Despite the resignation of
the president and the assassination of the vice-president, the
Colorado Party continued to hold onto power through the accession
of Luís Ángel González, the president of
the legislature - which the party controlled - to the presidency
of the republic.
However, González did nothing to
improve the Colorado Party's miserable record - even using a stolen
armored BMW as his official car while illegally transferring millions
of dollars from the Central Bank to accounts in the US. As soon
as he lost his legal immunity upon leaving office, he was charged
with fraud and embezzlement, convicted, and sentenced last year
to 8 years in prison.
The latest Colorado president, Nicanor
Duarte, elected in 2003 with 38% of the vote, has so far taken
a less excessive approach to governing, and has attempted to pursue
a centrist political line in the face of Latin America's shift
to the left, but the institutionalized privileges and patronage
of the longest continual ruling party in the world continue to
pressure the president to appease the right.
This reluctance, or inability, to change
policies favorable to Paraguay's elite, while all Latin America
continues to elect and reelect progressive presidents who reject
US priorities, has encouraged the country's left to take the offensive
and start to disprove Paraguayan sociologist Bernardino Caño's
assertion that the country has a 'cultural fear of change'.
In 2006, a 50,000 strong demonstration
took over Asunción to protest Colorado Party rule, and
unionized workers, and leftist and indigenous organizations began
to unite behind a Catholic bishop from one of Paraguay's poorest
areas, Lugo Méndez, who was speaking out forcefully against
poverty and inequality.
Praising Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's
Bolívarian revolution for favoring the poor, Lugo, the
'Bishop of the Poor', as he is now popularly known, continually
challenged Paraguay's traditional elite, questioning why '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.'
Last December, Lugo renounced his ministry
to participate in politics, not just to defeat the Colorado Party,
but to 'be more ambitious to change the country.' A forceful orator
both in Spanish and Guaraní, the indigenous language that
most Paraguayans speak, he declared that 'united in our diversity
we will not allow our dreams to be frustrated.'
The response from Paraguay's Catholic
hierarchy was swift. 'Monsignor Lugo is in a state of contempt,
exposing himself to the punishment of excommunication,' said the
president of Paraguay's Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Ignacio
Gogorza, 'Lugo does not have the permission of the Vatican to
go into politics, so he is leaving Catholicism for poor choices
he cannot leave the cloth simply by resigning. His life devoted
to religion is for one's entire life.'
On February 1, the Vatican denied Lugo's
request to be laicized. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re wrote that
Lugo must 'remain in the clerical state,' claiming that a bishop
as a presidential candidate would be 'a cause of confusion and
division amongst the faithful and an offense to the laity.'
This indirect support for the Colorado
Party from the Vatican has been further fueled by Lugo's adherence
to liberation theology - the 'preferential option for the poor'
tendency within Catholicism that emphasizes a commitment to those
less privileged - and which the official Church considers radical
Although the Vatican's rejection of Lugo's
resignation does not have legal force under Paraguay's secular
constitution, the closeness of the conservative Church hierarchy
with the Colorado Party, and the Party's control of the Supreme
Court, Congress and Electoral Tribunal, could mean that Lugo's
presidential candidacy may be ruled invalid.
Lugo is undeterred, however, and returned
to the streets in March with a 20,000 strong demonstration against
the Supreme Court, whose justices are all members of the Colorado
Party, calling on them to resign because of corruption and their
partisan support for President Duarte.
Justice in Paraguay is 'fast and cheap
for the wealthy or those who have friends in power,' Lugo told
the demonstrators, 'but new times are coming a change can come
in the short term but we have to be aware to guarantee that the
forces of chaos do not sabotage the awakening.'
The former priest continues to attract
the almost unconditional support of many of the estimated 50%
of Paraguayans who still live in poverty, and who have seen no
gains from the failed neoliberal policies that the ruling party
imported from the United States, but there are signs that support
from the organized left in Paraguay is more qualified.
Communist Party activists have cautioned
that workers 'have to see what Lugo does, more than what he says,'
while the Popular Socialist Convergence Party points out that
Lugo has considered an alliance with the traditional, and conservative,
opposition coalition, Concertación Nacional, although no
agreement has so far been formalized.
However, it is undeniable that most Paraguayans
have expectations that the politics that Lugo says have 'favored
narrow, partisan interests over those of the nation' will be defeated
in 2008. United with organized workers and indigenous activists,
the massive popular support behind Lugo's challenge to the elite
and their Colorado Party could finally end the control this privileged
minority has had over Paraguay for the last 60 years.