Paraguay: Rocky Road Ahead for Lugo

(IPS) – Amidst anticipation and apprehension regarding the imminent political transition, Paraguay is gearing up for Friday’s inauguration of centre-left President-elect Fernando Lugo, known as the "bishop of the poor", who is putting an end to six decades of Colorado Party rule.

The former Catholic bishop, a proponent of liberation theology, has appointed a cabinet as diverse as the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), the coalition of 10 political parties and more than 20 social movements that he represented in the April elections.

His government will include a cabinet chief — sociologist Miguel López Perito — who was a leader of a militant leftist group that plotted to overthrow dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) in the 1970s; a diplomat who sympathises with the Palestinian cause and has been accused of taking anti-Israeli stances, as foreign minister; and right-wing, former Colorado Party politicians as well as ex-priests and labour activists.

In addition, an indigenous woman, Margarita Mbyvângi, will for the first time in Paraguayan history head the state secretariat in charge of indigenous issues.

"It is a heterogeneous cabinet. It awaits to be seen whether it will manage to work together effectively as a team," political scientist Line Bareiro told IPS.

More than ideological differences, the biggest challenge for Lugo will be resolving conflicts of interest between the various groups in his government, she said.

In the view of another political analyst, Alfredo Boccia, the composition of the cabinet "reflects a cautious, and even conservative, stance."

"Lugo is going to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground," Boccia remarked to IPS. "He has to put top priority on governability and avoid ideological conflicts, in order to really tackle the country’s crucial problems."

"Governability" is a crucial issue for the new government, taking into account the fact that the Colorados will still be the largest party in Congress.

The last day of President Nicanor Duarte’s five-year term marks the end of 61 years of rule by the National Republican Association, better known as the Colorado Party, which encompassed the 35-year Stroessner regime.

Like his predecessors, Duarte has faced serious accusations of corruption, mismanagement and squandering of public funds, and he is currently the least popular president in Latin America, according to a survey carried out by the Mexican polling firm Consulta Mitofky.

But despite the president’s performance, the Colorado Party will still hold the largest number of seats in Congress, one of the biggest hurdles facing Lugo.

The mild-mannered sandal-clad president-elect, who was born into a poor family in the southern province of Itapúa, became a priest in 1977 and was ordained as a bishop when he was just 43 years old.

After serving as bishop of San Pedro, one of the country’s poorest dioceses, since 1994, he resigned as bishop in December 2006 to get involved in politics.

Appointing a cabinet was the first litmus test for the 57-year-old president-elect, who had to reconcile the demands of the different groups in the APC, in a process that caused controversy, drew criticism and triggered the first divisions in the coalition.

Lugo’s relationship with vice president-elect Federico Franco, the head of the centrist Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), has become tense in the last few weeks over the naming of the cabinet.

Franco publicly complained that his party, traditionally the country’s second-strongest political force, had been shortchanged in the distribution of posts, given the fact that the PLRA played a decisive role in Lugo’s electoral victory.

None of the four PLRA ministers-designate is an ally of Franco.

In addition, the woman originally named foreign minister-designate turned down the appointment when a PLRA member was named director of the Itaipú hydroelectric plant, which Paraguay owns jointly with Brazil.

Alejandro Hamed, a left-leaning diplomat of Syrian descent, was then named foreign minister. In the past, the former ambassador to Lebanon has come under scrutiny from the U.S. government, which accused him of ties to radical Islamist groups.

Hamed was also accused of issuing illegal visas to Lebanese citizens fleeing their country during the July-August 2006 bombing by Israel. In the end, the case was thrown out by the courts. Nevertheless, five influential APC leaders distanced themselves from Lugo in opposition to Hamed’s designation.

Further muddying up the waters, Lugo and several key associates have recently complained of attempts to sabotage the new government.

Several weeks ago, the vice president-elect protested alleged plans to create shortages of diesel fuel (which has been rationed in the past few months), and of medicines in public hospitals.

To that was added the shortage of cement caused by the breakdown of a plant belonging to the state-owned National Cement Industry (INC), which has practically brought the sector to a halt.

The APC also complained about "compulsive spending of funds in certain ministries."

"The evidence leads us to believe that the spending (of the ministries’ budget funds) is aimed at emptying out the coffers of certain key institutions, in order to deprive the government that will take office on Aug. 15 of a minimum level of funds needed for the actions it plans to carry out," says a communiqué issued by the coalition.

The APC also pointed to a series of land occupations by landless peasants in central and northeastern Paraguay since Lugo’s election, as well as attempts to blame the incidents on the new government.

The political transition that begins Friday will take place in a domestic context that is hardly favourable to Lugo, marked by social unrest, a weak economy, a lack of public confidence in the country’s institutions, and worries about governability, say analysts.

"I would be satisfied if the new government fulfills the three basic points it promised in the campaign," said Bareiro.

She was referring to the cleaning up and strengthening of the public administration, which is notorious for political cronyism; the renegotiation of the terms of the treaties governing the Itaipú and Yacyretá hydroelectric dams, with Brazil and Argentina, respectively; and land reform.

This third point, agrarian reform, is a major topic in Paraguay, which has the most unequal distribution of land in Latin America.

Lugo, in fact, became well-known in Paraguay for his work on behalf of the landless rural poor in the province of San Pedro.

The capital, meanwhile, has been unusually animated ahead of Friday’s swearing-in ceremony, which will be attended by Spain’s crown Prince Felipe and 11 presidents: Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, José Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, and Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan.

The inaugural ceremony will also be attended by six vice presidents, and foreign ministers and other high-level representatives from more than 50 countries and some 20 international bodies.