A Bishop President… what???

Disclaimer: I usually refrain from dealing with politics. However, given that our recent elections had such significance, and that Tom asked me for an opinion, I allowed myself an exception here. Please bear with me 😉

Right now it’s pretty old news: Monsignor Fernando Lugo won Presidential elections in Paraguay. While it may sound incredible or fabulous, you’ve read it right: A Roman Catholic bishop is set to be our President from August 15, 2008, to August 15, 2013.

Fernando Lugo, former Bishop of the Diocese of St. Peter (located on the Department of San Pedro, the most impoverished part of the country), is also a member of the Society of the Divine Word, a religious order of the Roman Catholic church, where he held the post of Provincial (the order’s highest official in a country) for a time. Before his nomination and subsequent election as Paraguayan President, he was a well-known proponent of liberation theology within Roman Catholic circles in Paraguay.

Lugo came to power heading a highly diverse political conglomerate, the Patriotic Alliance for Change (Alianza Patriótica para el Cambio), with the 117-year old Liberal Party (PLRA) as the main political force. Other forces within the alliance were several moderate and radical left-wing parties, and other organizations and caucuses representing various sectors of the civil society.

There are several points for the analysis of our current situation:

1. My personal opinion is that the nomination and subsequent election of Msgr. Lugo is unconstitutional. There were many who thought that Lugo’s candidacy was against Article 235 No. 5 of the Constitution of Paraguay, which establishes that ‘ministers of any religion or cult’ are ineligible as Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidates. Article 235, which lists several causes of ineligibility, also states a procedure to become eligible in some specific cases, and the ministerial condition is notably absent among them. Lugo ‘resigned’ to his ministerial status and then he claimed he was eligible for candidacy, but the Vatican rejected his peculiar ‘resignation’ and instead applied him the canonical sanction of a suspension a divinis. For the Vatican and for any Catholic, Lugo still is a bishop; therefore his candidacy goes straight against the spirit of the law and clearly against the letter of it.

Of course, Lugo could have become eligible had he chosen instead to resign to Catholicism, becoming something else (i.e., Evangelical, Muslim, Jew, non-religious, etc.). You cannot be a minister of a religion you’re not a member of. But for Lugo that would have meant losing his special aura as a bishop and spiritual guide for Catholics (85% of Paraguayan population), thereby hampering his chances to be elected into office.

The question was not settled. His main rival, the Colorado Party, chose not to object to his candidacy, partly because it was pretty sure it would win the elections, and partly because its President also happens to be the country’s President, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, and Mr. Duarte’s candidacy to the presidency of the Colorado Party was even more inconstitutional (forbidden by the Article 237; the President of the Republic must devote himself to his duties in full exclusivity, and holding any other office, be it public or private, is forbidden).

So, the legality of Lugo’s entry into office is doubtful at best. Because of that, I did not even consider voting for him; but now we are facing the consummated act, so all I can do is hope that Lugo do a good job as a President.

2. This election puts an end to 61 years of uninterrupted rule by the Colorado Party. The people was sick of seeing how Party officials and their elite were letting the country crumble under the weight of the widespread corruption, illegality, clientelism and, especially, failure to respect the lofty ideals of our country and letting its image and political weight among the nations of the world to be reduced to almost nothing. One of the key points of Lugo’s campaign was, for example, the re-negotiation of the Itaipú Treaty (1973). This treaty gave birth to the enormous Itaipú dam, but the Treaty is widely criticized among several sectors of our society because it is perceived as being extremely favorable to Brazil, the 800 pound gorilla lying east of our country. In short, Paraguayans said at the ballot boxes that they want respect: They want to feel worthy of respect, to respect themselves, and to be respected by others.

3. While many see Lugo as part of an alleged turn of Latin American governments to the left, in line with the colorful leaderships of Chávez in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua and Correa in Ecuador, my opinion is that this is not correct. Lugo himself may have some affinity with those governments; but he was clear when he said that he wanted to create his own way of exercising the Presidential office. Moreover, remember that the main political force supporting Lugo is the Liberal Party, a party that is perhaps the most old-style conservative/libertarian political force in the country. The fact is that we will have to wait and see how Lugo conducts his administration.

4. The election is a severe blow not only to the Colorado Party, now ousted from power, but also to its President (with leave of absence) and current President of the Republic, Mr. Nicanor Duarte Frutos. Duarte Frutos came into office in 2003 with the support of many Paraguayans, who had high hopes that he would help steer the country out of the dreadful situation it was in, after the disaster that was the González Macchi administration (yes, we almost touched the bottom with that one). Duarte Frutos did some good things, and he was an able administrator. But he chose to focus himself in Party petty politics instead of giving more attention to the serious troubles of our country. Meanwhile, extreme poverty grew, and social ills were not treated effectively.

5. One of the most painful things that Paraguay has to endure is emigration, and this fact helped to get Lugo elected. A lot of people, especially women, began to seek in Spain, Argentina, and other countries, the opportunities that were denied to them in Paraguay, while high Party officers became richer and richer, flaunting their opulence amidst the rampant general poverty. An enormous number of middle and lower class families took the hit of emigration, becoming single- or no-parent families. Divorces and separations grew high, and child behavior became problematic in both the family and the school context. Forced economic emigration is right now a major pastoral concern for both Evangelical and Roman Catholic churches in Paraguay. I have seen the effects myself; my own sister-in-law, holding an advanced degree in mathematics, and a member of one of Paraguay’s most traditional families, is right now working as a maid in Madrid, Spain, scrubbing floors and babysitting children.

The phenomenon of emigration began to increase in force in the last years of the González Macchi administration, and took off under the Duarte Frutos government. When asked about emigration, all that President Duarte Frutos managed to say was that migrations were a global, widespread phenomenon, and that most families affected were middle class, and not poor, and the whole issue was not so important. This ill-advised outburst from President Duarte Frutos is, in my opinion, one of the major determinants for the Colorado Party’s fall from office. Just think how a lonely child whose mom is scrubbing floors in Europe for some petty Euros would feel when his President told him that the particular phenomenon that tore down his family world was “something of lesser importance”. The remark was much more than an insult; it added to the pain of the dismembered families, and created widespread resentment against Duarte Frutos and the Colorado Party.

6. However, we must also give some credit to our current President, Mr. Nicanor Duarte Frutos. He did some things right; and in many aspects his administration was a definite improvement over previous Colorado administrations. The problem was that the improvements were not enough. Moreover, he held free elections, electoral fraud was remarkably absent, and he conceded defeat and showed his disposition of turning office to Msgr. Lugo in an orderly way. This fact alone is of historic significance: For the first time in the whole history of Paraguay —171 years as an independent country and nearly 300 years as a Spanish colony— we will witness a peaceful change in ruling political parties or groups. Just think that the Colorado Party came into power in 1947 after a full-blown civil war, and you will understand how deeply significant is this change. And we must charge it to Mr. Duarte’s credit.

So, despite many objections, let’s hope that times will change for the better in our country. Please pray for that; I will appreciate it!


  1. Thanks for the excellent post. Now it is ten months later. I would sure like to read an update with your opinions of Paraguay’s joys and sorrows with The Bishop President.

  2. Thanks, Mike. I really don’t like to write posts on politics; but I will see if I can write according to your request.

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