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Leftist becomes Paraguay president

Ex-bishop Fernando Lugo's inauguration is widely seen as the nation's definitive step to democratic rule.

August 16, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

ASUNCION, PARAGUAY — Former Roman Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo, whose election broke a six-decade legacy of dictatorship and one-party rule, was sworn in Friday as president of this poor, landlocked nation in the heart of South America.

"Today a new Paraguay is born," Lugo told thousands of supporters and various heads of state assembled outside the congressional palace in the normally sleepy capital. "Today marks the end of an exclusive Paraguay, a secretive, notoriously corrupt Paraguay."

This nation of 6 million has had a fragile democracy since the 1989 ouster of strongman Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for 35 years under the banner of the Colorado Party. But Stroessner's colorados retained power until Lugo's inauguration -- which is being widely seen as the nation's definitive transition to democratic rule.

Lugo is the latest leftist leader to assume office in a region that a generation ago was largely ruled by U.S.-backed military dictatorships. Left-leaning, democratically elected presidents of eight South American nations were on hand to pay homage to their newest colleague in an impressive display of solidarity.

"This is a victory for the Latin American revolution," declared Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez upon arriving at his hotel, where he was warmly embraced by Lugo.

Oil-rich Venezuela is reported to be considering funding a new university here, part of Lugo's stated desire to improve the country's long- neglected educational and health infrastructure.

However, Lugo has refrained from the U.S.-bashing style of Chavez and has signaled a closer affinity for the policies of the region's more moderate leaders, such as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chile's Michelle Bachelet, both firm U.S. allies who attended Lugo's inauguration. The Bush administration has welcomed Lugo, and it sent a sizable delegation.

Asuncion, for decades the repressive stronghold of the Stroessner dictatorship, has drawn a celebratory gathering of Latin American leftists.

"I have come to share the joy of this country for the new era that begins with Lugo," Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer known for his political commentary, told a crowd gathered at a downtown theater, where he was greeted by the new president.

Lugo, 57, rose from his status as hero of the landless poor to assemble a broad coalition that toppled the ruling party in April's elections. The presidency is his first elective office.

As bishop of a rural province, Lugo often sided with the disenfranchised against the government and large landowners. A former parish priest and missionary, he comes from a middle-class family of former Colorado Party activists that split with Stroessner.

Lugo resigned as bishop and left the priesthood to run for president, a move that angered a Vatican hierarchy historically hostile to clerics seeking political office. After Lugo's election, however, Pope Benedict XVI reluctantly agreed to return Lugo to lay status.

Lugo has remained a devout Catholic and unabashed advocate of Liberation Theology, a Third World movement that champions the downtrodden but has been assailed by the Vatican for Marxist influences.

After the inauguration, Lugo and his sister, Mercedes Lugo, attended a church service at the nearby cathedral.

"The church has shown me how the poor live in this country," Lugo said in an interview with The Times this spring. "That inspires me to work on behalf of this class that is so demeaned, so abandoned, so forgotten."

As he did throughout his campaign, the gray-bearded Lugo, sporting his trademark embroidered white shirt without jacket or tie, emphasized the fight against the corruption and nepotism that have long stifled progress and resulted in the emigration of millions of Paraguayans.

"Today begins the story of a Paraguay whose authorities and people will be implacably against the country's thieves," he said.

A poll published Friday showed Lugo's popularity ratings soaring to about 90% in a nation clearly eager for political and social change. However, as he begins his five-year term, he faces competing demands from peasants and the small percentage of landowners who control most of the wealth.

The Colorado Party, now representing a powerful opposition bloc, has signaled its intention to fight some of Lugo's planned leftist reforms. Lugo ran under the banner of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, a coalition of left-wing and conservative groups with often-clashing agendas.

"It's not going to be easy," Lugo said of the challenge he faces. "But it won't be impossible."

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patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

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