Populist Bishop Elected President

Article excerpt

Fernando Lugo won the presidency of Paraguay April 20 and made history twice.

Running for the Patriotic Alliance for Change, a coalition of nine opposition parties, Lugo broke 61 years of uninterrupted rule by the conservative Colorado Party.

And he did it as a retired Catholic bishop whom the Vatican has refused to laicize.

Lugo, 58, retired from the San Pedro diocese in 2005 after more than 30 years as a bishop and priest. The Vatican suspended him from exercising his priestly ministry when he decided to run for president, but rejected his request for laicization.

Activism runs in Lugo's veins. His father was arrested 20 times under the regime of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and three of his four brothers were expelled from the country.

In 1996, Lugo hosted a continent-wide gathering of base communities, the small faith groups dedicated to spiritual formation and political action associated with liberation theology. In 2004, he supported peasants protesting unequal land distribution and the inroads of commercial agriculture.

Activities like these earned him the sobriquet "the red bishop." Lugo begins his five-year term Aug. 15. He has promised economic growth with social equality, sweeping land reform, and an overhaul of the country's institutions to deal with urgent social problems. He says he will fight against corruption and secure the country's energy sovereignty.

According to political analyst Victor Barone, Lugo inherits a stable macroeconomic infrastructure, but on the microeconomic side "the dally reality is different. The population is entrenched in the terrible economic crisis."

The last days of the election campaign turned rough. Supporters of outgoing President Nicanor Duarte Frutos launched a smear campaign against Lugo, distributing images in which the former bishop appears to be an ally of Colombian guerrillas. Claims also surfaced that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez financially supported Lugo's campaign, which Lugo and his supporters vehemently denied.

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On election day, more than 65 percent of the population voted, one of the highest voter turnouts in Paraguayan history. Lugo captured 41 percent of the vote, 10 and 18 percent more than his two closest rivals. The Organization of American States' electoral mission noted that voting was peaceful.

Once the results were released, thousands of people, mostly youths, party members and social movement members, took to the streets, waving Paraguayan flags, giving the capital, Asuncion, a carnival-like atmosphere.

Amid chants of "Se siente, se siente, Lugo presidente"--"You feel it, you feel it, Lugo will be president"--Lugo addressed a rally of 80,000 who filled the city's plaza. …