(IPS) – The countdown to Paraguay’s presidential elections in April has begun, and the candidate for the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo, looks likely to pose a serious threat to the six-decades-old Colorado Party monopoly on power.
Lugo, 56, asked to be secularised (returned to layman status) by the Vatican in December 2006, after a decade of pastoral work in the northern province of San Pedro, one of the poorest regions in this country of 6.7 million people.
However, Pope Benedict XVI disapproved of his political aspirations, turned down his resignation and instead suspended him "a divinis", a penalty which means he cannot exercise certain priestly functions, but is not relieved of his clerical obligations.
Known as "the bishop of the poor," Lugo is strongly influenced by liberation theology, a school of thought which took shape in Latin America in the 1960s, partly as a result of the renewal of the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. Recognising the pressing need for social change and social justice, it challenged the Church to defend the oppressed and the poor.
Polls indicate that he is the most respected and popular political figure in Paraguay, ahead of the other candidates by a wide margin.
The APC rose from the ashes of the Concertación Nacional (National Coalition), which drew together the main political forces of the opposition with the goal of nominating a single candidate for the elections.
However, an internal crisis split the coalition apart, and the APC has taken its place. The new bloc consists of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), the country’s second political party in terms of voter support, a few minor parties without parliamentary representation, and civil society organisations.
Lugo’s running mate is Dr. Federico Franco, who was elected in December by the PLRA. The pair will be standing against former Education Minister Blanca Ovelar of the ruling Colorado Party or ANR (National Republican Association), former General Lino Oviedo of the National Union of Ethical Citizens (UNACE), and businessman Pedro Fadul of the Beloved Fatherland Party (PPQ).
In an interview with IPS correspondent David Vargas, Lugo called on the opposition to unite, advocated following a Paraguayan path towards change, distanced himself from the government-led processes of change in Venezuela and Bolivia, and said he could possibly learn from the examples of the left in Uruguay and the centre-left in Chile.
IPS: How do you see the present electoral scenario, now that the initial enthusiasm of presenting a united opposition front at the elections next April has lapsed?
FERNANDO LUGO: We’re starting to build a united opposition, which is not an easy task in Paraguay, because we have not had the experience of democracy that other countries in the region have enjoyed, nor the real opportunity to unite around a plan for the country. Political parties today, and especially their leaders, are removed from their followers, and their supporters have lost faith in them.
There’s no model that we can copy or import. Uruguay’s Frente Amplio (Broad Front) could shed some light on our situation: it was formed in 1971 (and is now the governing party); or the Coalition for Democracy in Chile, which has a history of 25 years (and has governed Chile since 1990). But we have been in existence for less than one year.
IPS: Are you confident that you can put an end to the Colorado Party’s hegemony?
FL: We are confident that the APC is certain to win the elections, because of the receptiveness we have been shown in the hinterland of the country, the hope that our candidacy has inspired, and the differences between our programme and the others’. So far, barring electoral fraud, the APC will triumph.
IPS: Have your chances been undermined by the release of former General Lino Oviedo, and his official recognition as a candidate?
FL: Oviedo is not a guarantee of democracy in the country, but it is also true that he is not the same person he was 10 years ago, when he had military, economic and political power. He has come out of prison into a scenario in which his own party is divided, and many of its valuable leaders have left it.
Although it was also a loss, the departure of UNACE from the National Coalition was a gain for the APC, because when UNACE left, the social movements joined us.
IPS: What political and economic policies will you implement?
FL: We are convinced that it is not the sole responsibility of the state or the government to draw up a political plan. We believe in private initiative, we do not believe in monopolies, whether state-owned or private. We are in favour of a mixed economy, and so we have invited financially powerful corporations and institutions to take part in a social dialogue to arrive at a programme by consensus.
Planning for a mixed economy inevitably means making room for the business community, industrial groups, and other economic forces within the country to participate.
IPS: How will you tackle poverty? FL: I think there are two or three possible strategies. First of all, government administration must be honest. There are resources that are not being used efficiently, such as the Itaipú and Yacyretá hydrelectric dams, for example.
It’s possible to make plans for an industrial country, one that is not only an exporter of agricultural commodities. We have the necessary tools: sun, earth, water, people, technology, raw materials, energy. So far there has neither been a plan nor really effective management for this to become a reality.
IPS: Will you carry out land reform?
FL: We believe Paraguay must recover its credibility on the international stage, and one essential element is land redistribution.
In the early 1990s, Paraguay received a 40 million dollar loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to create a national land ownership registry, which to this day has not been carried out. Only 10 to 15 percent in the south of the country has been covered. As long as we lack a credible land registry, people will continue to be duped.
The point of departure for land reform is transparency about who owns what land. With the participation of government, small farmers’ organisations and industrial sectors, we could design a land reform process that would not be traumatic or violent, but would be the product of inclusive and consensual negotiation.
IPS: In terms of your plans for the country, to whom do you feel closest: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia or Hugo Chávez of Venezuela?
FL: Paraguay has to make its own way forward. I don’t think we can import a foreign model. I’m in favour of collective and shared leadership. I think that in some countries there are very strong individual leaders, such as in Chávez’s case, for example.
When leadership isn’t shared, individual leaders can cause polarisation, as I believe is happening in Bolivia. I don’t believe in creating a polarised society. We have enough problems already without creating additional conflict. I believe in dialogue as the social instrument to build a country.
IPS: How does Paraguay fit in to the regional scenario?
FL: Paraguay is at a special juncture. There is a strong probability that the Colorado Party’s hegemony can be broken, and that the country can be rebuilt democratically, with stronger institutions. To have a state that is not solidly identified with one party will, I think, be a great change.
IPS: What do you think of the current Paraguayan government of Nicanor Duarte?
FL: He stirred up great expectations and dreams through his speeches, holding out the hope for a renewal of the Colorado Party. But he failed, and plunged the people into disappointment and frustration. The entrenched structures, the old way of doing politics through patronage and handing out sinecures that had kept the Colorado Party in power prevailed, and became everyday practices in his government.
IPS: What is your view on the changes in the region, especially its turn to the left in recent years?
FL: The case of (Ecuadorean President) Rafael Correa is unprecedented, and so is the situation of Chávez in Venezuela, where one oligarchy has been displaced by another, but it has at least brought a certain amount of transparency and economic benefits. There are also elements conspiring to attack the strengthening of public freedoms. We are watching events there from a distance.
IPS: What is your position with regard to the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) (to which Paraguay belongs, together with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and which Venezuela is in the process of joining as a full member)?
FL: No country can think about development in isolation. Integration is a social, economic, political and trade imperative of the market. But I think that Mercosur as it is today is inadequate, especially for Uruguay and Paraguay, countries for which the asymmetries in terms of economic growth have grown.
The creation of Parlasur (the Mercosur Parliament) was an important step, because it introduced a political element, but other ingredients are lacking, such as social and cultural components, which should be included in order to strengthen the bloc.
IPS: What role do you expect the country to play on the regional stage?
FL: Paraguay faces two challenges. First, to recover our dignity as a country. At the moment we are a byword for illegality, corruption and contraband. This image must change, and that can only be done with transparent, honest governance and a transformed public administration.
Secondly, we must earn the moral authority to join the region, and open ourselves to international relations depending on convenience and mutual benefits.