Home > Americas, Latin America, Politics > Is Paraguay Set to be the Next Latin American Country to Lean to the Left?

Is Paraguay Set to be the Next Latin American Country to Lean to the Left?

The Council of Hemispheric Affairs writes in Political Affairs:

After deciding not to seek a constitutional amendment to allow for his consecutive re-election, the upcoming April 2008 presidential vote in Paraguay will close out President Nicanor Duarte’s relatively tranquil first, and only, five year term. This election could very well be the first in decades to pose a serious threat to the seemingly eternal rule of the long-tainted and long ruling Colorado Party, which has controlled Paraguay since 1947, including the decades-long venal and brutal dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. The likely candidate to successfully contest this bilious legacy is former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo Méndez, who aspires to appear on the presidential ticket representing the opposition, El Partido Concertación Nacional.

Lugo visited Washington June 18 and met with officials at the State Department; even though he is not yet an official candidate. Additionally, he delivered a lecture at George Washington University titled “Political Alternatives to the World’s Longest Ruling Party.” Maintaining good terms with the U.S., gaining widespread public support in Paraguay, and solidifying international friendships seem to be the basis of his good-natured campaign agenda.

Background of a Bishop

Lugo was ordained a Catholic priest in 1977 and became Bishop of San Pedro, Paraguay in 1994. Although he resigned in 2005 to pursue his political ambitions, Lugo still has congressional impediments to confront as Paraguay’s constitution bans members of the clergy from seeking political office. The Vatican has not yet formally accepted his resignation and members of the ruling Colorado Party are using every means to establish that Lugo’s candidacy would be unconstitutional. However, Lugo has a first rank team of constitutional law experts who have confirmed that his candidacy would pose no legal challenges. On the contrary, the obstacles he must overcome to secure the candidacy are entirely political in nature. If Lugo only had managed a small percentage of popular support, his run for president would not be an issue. But a recent poll conducted by the Paraguayan newspaper Ultima Hora, showed that 40.8 percent of respondents would support Lugo as the candidate of the opposition Concertación Nacional, making him a disturbingly credible threat to the Colorados.

The Tides Are Turning

Although President Duarte, who appears to be an inherently decent man, has tried to rule from a more centrist standpoint than his predecessors in the extremely conservative Colorado party, his refusal to fully take on Paraguay’s conventional elites, in light of the recent leftward shift in Latin America, has allowed the country’s left to strike out against him. Almost 50 percent of Paraguay’s population lives on less than $2 a day and 38 percent of the citizenry are either unemployed or under-employed. Decades of rule by the Colorados have enriched the wealthy at the expense of the indigenous population and ordinary Paraguayans. This disenfranchised majority in Paraguay views Lugo as “The Bishop of the Poor,” and as their only chance to build change from the bottom up with an honest administration that could lead Paraguay into the future.

In 2006, over 50,000 demonstrators took over the capital, Asunción, to protest against Colorado rule. Unionized workers, as well as leftist and indigenous organizations, began to unite behind Lugo, who is from one of Paraguay’s poorest areas and who has often spoken out forcefully against poverty and inequality. The “Bishop of the Poor” has praised Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for his work to help Venezuela’s poverty-grasped population. Still, Lugo has made an effort to distance himself from other populist leaders in Latin America by focusing more explicitly on social inequality in Paraguay. Lugo challenged the country’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.”

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