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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Paraguay - who would have thought...

Times of Malta -- Sunday, 27th April 2008

The bishop who became president

Paraguayan president-elect Fernando Lugo laughs during a news conference in Asuncion.

It does not happen everyday... not even every decade. Once in a blue moon would perhaps be more exact. But it happened last Sunday. Retired bishop Fernando Lugo was elected president of Paraguay, ending the six-decade rule of the Colorado party.

This darling of the poor and the downtrodden had to surmount a number of challenges besides the big electoral one. His first hurdle was the official disapproval from the Vatican and, initially, from the Paraguayan bishops' conference. As support for Lugo remained strong in the largely Catholic country, the conference refrained from further comment.

Lugo, 58, retired from the diocese of San Pedro in 2005. When he decided to run for president, the Vatican suspended him from exercising his priestly ministry. Paraguay's constitution bars priests from contesting. Therefore he asked the Vatican to allow him to become a layman according to Canon law. The Vatican refused. The enemies of Lugo wanted the courts to disqualify him. This stratagem did not work out. Lugo started achieving success in the pre-electoral polls and last Sunday he won the largest poll of all on election day.

Following his election the Paraguayan bishops' conference made no official statement, but the Paraguayan newspaper ABC quoted Bishop Adalberto Martinez Flores of San Pedro, secretary of the Paraguayan bishops' conference, as saying that the conference "accepts and acknowledges the victory of Lugo as president-elect of Paraguay". Could they have done otherwise? Fr Ciro Benedettini, vice-director of the Vatican's press office, said that the Vatican will not be making any statements regarding Lugo.

Lugo obtained a relative majority, which is all that is needed in Paraguay. His main adversary was the Colorado party candidate Blanca Ovelar, who attempted to be the first female president, and retired Gen. Lino Oviedo, former head of the armed forces, who was convicted, and later acquitted of a 1996 coup attempt.

Paraguay is known for its levels of corruption. The president-elect wants it to become a country know for its honesty. Lugo's left-wing leanings are well known in a continent which gave the world many radical bishops and priests. He has publicly declared his sympathy for the recently elected left-wing leaders. Although he kept his distance from Hugo Chavez, the maverick left-wing president of Venezuela, the outgoing president Nicanor Duarte alleged that Lugo's campaign was financed by Chavez. His closeness to the people on the left does not stop him from defending Paraguay's rights even when faced with left-wing leaders. He will soon be confronting Brazilian President Luiz Lula to increase the price of the electricity Paraguay sells to Brazil.

Lugo is expected to dedicate his presidency to fight for equality for Paraguay's poor farmers and indigenous people. This is a president with the poor and the vulnerable close to his heart.

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