Former Catholic Bishop Enters the Political Arena

Paraguayan former bishop Fernando Lugo (L) and the governor of the Central Department, Federico Franco, of the Liberal party, embrace during a coordination meeting in Asunción. (Photo: Norberto Duarte / AFP-Getty Images)

The probable presidential candidacy of a former Catholic bishop in Paraguay's 2008 elections has sparked renewed interest in a geo-politically strategic area of South America.

Fernando Lugo, 52, the popular bishop of San Pedro, the country's poorest department, made public his decision to renounce his church ministry last December to collaborate in "the search for solutions to the country's problems."

That announcement constituted a political hurricane in a country dominated for the past 60 years by dictator Alfredo Stroessner's Partido Colorado party.

For their part, conservative Catholic Church leaders accused Lugo of betraying the church's supposed non-political role in Paraguayan society, although more moderate and progressive churchmen rapidly rallied to his support.

Paraguay is increasingly considered of great geo-political importance in the United States due to its borders with Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay, whose left of center governments are frequently critical of some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

Significantly, Paraguay also shares part of the so-called "Triple Frontier" with Argentina and Brazil — eyed suspiciously by U.S. anti-terrorist experts — and part of one of the world's biggest water reserves flows under its territory. The noted area is also under suspicion for possible involvement in drug trafficking.

Lugo is a progressive-minded Catholic who worked with indigenous communities in Ecuador, where recently elected president, Rafael Correa, has maintained close contacts with the church's progressive-inclined "Theology of Liberation" tendency.

Lugo's election would not only add yet another link in the series of Latin American countries with policies independent of the traditional pro-American stance, it could also complicate the present government's intention to work out a free trade agreement with the United States.

The former bishop told ABC, a daily newspaper in Asunción, that he decided to give up his ministry for politics not just to defeat the Partido Colorado, but because "I want to be more ambitious. We have to change the country."

The available data seems to back up his concerns, at least from an economic perspective. According to Paraguay's Secretary of Technical Planning, 38 percent of the population is unemployed or under-employed, and half of the country lives in poverty.

A survey puts Lugo in first place in terms of voter preference, constituting a clear sign of alert for the Partido Colorado, the church hierarchy and other conservative forces.

Three of Lugo's brothers and an uncle were forced into exile under the anti-communist Stroessner dictatorship. Subsequent to the dictator's death, the Partido Colorado continued providing the country's presidents, and dominated successive constitutionally-elected governments.

Lugo's calls for "unity in diversity," and for a "clean up" of the political system, rapidly rallied the support of the numerous opposition groups in the country. His nonconformist proposals echo popular demands and include agricultural reform, reassertion of national sovereignty in the utilization of energy, opposition to the immunity of U.S. troops in Paraguay, and the possible naming of a woman as vice-presidential candidate.

Urged on by President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, the Paraguayan Congress authorized immunity for U.S. troops operating in the county, as part of joint military exercises. The granting of immunity was strongly opposed by Mercosur members Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Aside from sending several hundred troops, the Argentine daily Clarín reported that the Mariscal Estigarriba airport — built with the help of U.S. technicians during the Stroessner regime — has been refurbished to allow landings of B-52 and Hercules C-130 aircraft.

The U.S. military presence in the area has been interpreted by some as a maneuver to monitor the Triple Frontier area, often accused by Washington of housing suspected Islamic terrorists. Likewise, the U.S. presence close to Bolivia's border could serve to keep tabs on the policies of Bolivian President Evo Morales, strongly critical of Washington's politics in the area.

Due in part to popular opposition, the military immunity agreement — slated to end last month — will probably not be renewed.

Those who opposed the U.S. military presence in the country raised their eyebrows last August in the wake of the sudden visit to Asunción of then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who, alongside President George Bush, subsequently received the Paraguayan president in the White House, according to a report in Clarín's Sept. 11, 2006 edition.

The president of the Paraguayan Congress, Carlos Filizzola, of the opposition País Solidario party, asserted ironically that "this cooperation marks a turning point because they (the U.S.) were never interested in Paraguay. Now they seek to control the zone. Thus, Paraguay gives way to U.S. interests and distances itself from the Mercosur." Numerous other opposition voices have charged that the intention of the U.S. in the area is to monitor a zone of great political and strategic interest.

Less commonly mentioned but likewise of key geo-political significance for the U.S. is the "Acuífero Guaraní," one of the world's largest underground sources of water, equal in area to France, Spain and Portugal combined. Of this subterranean reserve, 70 percent is in Brazil, 19 percent in Argentina, 6 percent in Paraguay and 5 percent in Uruguay.

The U.S. geo-political concern for the area was expressed clearly in the Republican party's Santa Fe IV document, drafted in 2000, which asserted that efforts should be made to assure that the hemisphere's countries not be hostile to Washington's national security concerns and that the region's resources be available to respond to U.S. priorities.

Growing numbers of experts believe that one of the world's future struggles will center around the provision of fresh drinking water. In that context the Guaraní and Latin American water reserves may be essential — the continent has 12 percent of the world's population but 47 percent of it's potential fresh water.

Although the Paraguayan elections are more than a year away, the appearance of a popular and progressive-minded candidate such as Lugo will certainly place it on Washington's geo-political checklist. A center-left Paraguay would add yet another knot to the political, economic and cultural tug-of-war now taking place throughout Latin America between moderate leftist governments seeking continental unity, and conservative forces aligned with the traditional power structures and the United States.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Alfred Hopkins.