ASUNCION, PARAGUAY — The election of Fernando Lugo as president of Paraguay signals the latest advance of the left in Latin America and the end of more than six decades of rule by a political party best known for a longtime anti-communist dictatorship.
Lugo, a bespectacled former Roman Catholic bishop, appears to be among the more moderate left-leaning leaders of South America, where only two major nations, Colombia and Peru, continue to be run by conservatives.
After sweeping to victory Sunday, he was quickly congratulated by the U.S. ambassador. State Department officials said Lugo has exhibited no outward hostility toward the United States.
"We're ready to work with him," said one State Department official, who declined to be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.
The now-dominant left in South America has taken many forms -- from the stridently anti-U.S. rhetoric of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales to the generally pro-Washington sentiments of Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chile's Michelle Bachelet. Lugo, 56, dubbed "the bishop of the poor," is seen as independent from the U.S. but not hostile.
"Lugo is a bit of an unknown quantity . . . but the indicators are that he's a relatively moderate type," said Gerald McCulloch, a former U.S. diplomat who heads the Paraguayan-American Chamber of Commerce, a trade group.
It is a measure of the changing times in U.S.-Latin American relations that a president-elect like Lugo hardly raises eyebrows in Washington. A decade ago, a chief of state with Lugo's background probably would have sounded alarm bells. The ex-bishop endorses Liberation Theology, a doctrine criticized by the Vatican for Marxist influence.
Many observers on the continent say Washington's intense focus on the Middle East in recent years has contributed to its diminished influence in Latin America. A region that was once at the center of Cold War politics is now an afterthought, according to many Latin American analysts.
"I don't think this [election] is even on Washington's radar screen, given all the other stuff going on in the world," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Part of the perception that Lugo will govern as a moderate stems from the broad-based representation in Lugo's victorious Patriotic Alliance for Change, whose members range from the far left to the right. The coalition's key institutional anchor is Paraguay's Authentic Liberal Radical Party, a well-established conservative party with broad U.S. contacts.
Lugo's vice president is a Liberal party standard-bearer. And as president, Lugo will have to rely on the bloc of Liberal lawmakers to get anything passed in a divided Congress.
"If you look at Lugo's alliance, there's a lot of mainstream political leaders," noted one Western observer here. "It's not all campesino groups. It's not the coca growers union."
The latter is a reference to Bolivia's Morales, who emerged from that nation's coca growers movement -- long hostile to U.S. anti-drug policies -- before being elected president in December 2005. A cornerstone of Morales' campaign was his alliance with Chavez and antipathy toward "imperialism" from Washington.
Lugo has studiously avoided such rhetoric. In a preelection interview with the Los Angeles Times, Lugo noted Washington's sometimes-contradictory role in Latin America -- and especially in Paraguay. Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who ran the country with an iron fist for 35 years, was a U.S. Cold War ally before his government's abysmal human rights record soured ties with Washington and he was ousted in 1989. His Colorado Party held power for more than 60 years before Lugo's victory.
"The United States . . . has sustained the great dictatorships, but afterward lifted the banner of democracy," Lugo noted.
However, he said, Washington must acknowledge a new scenario in which Latin American governments "won't accept any type of intervention from any country, no matter how big it is."
It is a sensitive issue that resounds throughout South and Central America.
U.S. interventions -- coups, invasions, funding of armed groups -- have cast a shadow over relations between the United States and the region. Latin American leaders, including Lugo, are united in demanding noninterference from Washington.
"They don't see themselves as part of the strategic preserve of the United States," said Shifter of the Washington think tank.
Nevertheless, Shifter added: "The good news from the American perspective is that these governments still want to deal with the U.S., though on different terms."
The Bush administration, in turn, has backed off somewhat from unpopular and divisive projects such as an Americas-wide free-trade zone. Brazil and Paraguay were among the nations that balked at the plan, deeming it unfair to South American producers.