The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation

The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation


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Paraguay had the oldest one-party regime on earth. Under the 60-year dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner's Colorado party, wealth and power became concentrated in the hands of a small few; until elections in 2008 broke the party's hold on the country and promised a newer, more egalitarian future, particularly for the country's indigenous people. 

In The Priest of Paraguay Hugh O'Shaughnessy tells the story of how Fernando Lugo, a bishop from a deprived diocese, swept to victory and what this means for his country, Latin America and the wider world. He traces Lugo's life alongside the turbulent history of Paraguay - from his early years in a family which fell victim to Stroessner to his release by the Vatican in order to follow a political calling to the outcry following revelations of illegitimate children. The book also examines what may lie in store for the newest addition to Latin America's 'pink tide' of socialist and social democratic countries. 

This is history of a fascinating but largely unknown country by one of the most respected commentators on Latin America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848133136
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 11/10/2009
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Hugh O'Shaughnessy is a well known journalist and writer. He has worked for the Financial Times, the Economist, The New Statesman, the Observer and the BBC, among others. He has won two British Press Awards and has also been recognised by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in the United States. His books include Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath and Pinochet: The Politics of Torture.

Read an Excerpt

The Priest of Paraguay

Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation

By Hugh O'Shaughnessy, Edgar Venerando Ruiz Díaz

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Hugh O'Shaughnessy and Edgar Venerando Ruiz Diaz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-313-6



On the pavement outside a modern former bank building in the centre of Asunción, the provisional headquarters of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, in early June 2008, armed troops stood on watch. A former bishop, Fernando Lugo, had just won the election for the presidency, pushing the governing Colorado party out of power for the first time in more than six decades. In front of the ground-floor reception desk milled a score of people seeking audience. Among them, a fragile group of octogenarians and nonagenarians, medals proudly worn on their best clothes, awaited their chance for a talk with the president. There are not many veterans left from the 1932–35 Chaco War with Bolivia, which left 36,000 Paraguayans dead and Paraguay narrowly victorious on the field of battle.

At the door of his office upstairs the sensation was one of political power. The British ambassador was ushered in. Then Dionisio Borda, Lugo's candidate for the economy ministry, appeared. Outside Lugo's inner office sat a beautiful secretary with long blonde hair: 'The president likes good-looking women,' said a friend. The buzz in the corridors, as the notables came and went, was the unmistakable one of state authority in the hands of one man. He was addressed as 'President' though there were some weeks to go before he was to don the sash of office.

The incoming leader of Paraguay, rimless glasses on his nose, informally dressed in a shirt without a tie under a brown jumper with patterns of llamas, and wearing mittens, received the visitor with a bright smile that lit up a bearded face. He showed all the aplomb and assurance of a man born to lead. He talked fast and with urgency. No small talk. No clerical pieties. Straight to the main questions and the careful but unhesitatingly trenchant answers from a man who gave the impression he knew what he wanted and had a fair idea of how to get it. The majority of his answers would not have shamed a left-wing social democrat in any country of the European Union in the twentieth century: a better sharing of the wealth between rich and poor; the need to educate the richer Paraguayans to realize that mass poverty was not their ally but a threat to their future; more respect for the constitution. At the end of his five-year term, he said, a drive against political abuse would have helped Paraguay to become a 'serious' nation respected internationally.

All this was mixed with references to the sort of reforms needed in a country coming out of a long period of dictatorship – less corruption, a genuine agrarian reform, and one topic that would hardly be on the agenda of a politician in Europe: the state of the native peoples. 'I think', he said, 'that 1992, the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Europeans, led to a rediscovery of the indigenes, their dignity and their very culture. There's a process of reappraisal going on.' This was clearly a man committed to doing something about the state of the indigenous peoples, whose treatment at the hands of the European conquerors and their descendants over 500 years had been a disgrace.

The man who was born in 1951 in a country village to a railway worker and his schoolmistress wife was preparing to take on the enormous task of modernizing one of the most backward countries in the world. Paraguay was not a poor country in the way that Honduras and Haiti were poor. Since the 1530s, when treasure-seekers and missionaries from Spain landed, it had been a colony where a small number of whites ruled over a mass of indigenous peoples, pastoral people, the majority speaking one or other forms of the Guaraní language. With the arrival of the Spaniards the missionaries among them made sure that the Christianity which they brought – and which was one of the reasons for the arrival of the Europeans – struck deep roots. Gold and silver were never discovered in Paraguay and it yielded none of the instant fortunes that other Spaniards found in Mexico and Peru. Yet there was plenty of land for its inhabitants. With plenty of water and a reasonable climate, that land produced plentiful food and the agricultural goods that the rest of the world later wanted to buy, notably meat and cereals.

Although Spain's colonial rule came to an end in the first years of the nineteenth century, Paraguay's trouble was that for the following two centuries many of the features of colonial society survived and it suffered from the scandalously bad distribution of income that was inherent in rule by the minority of whites and near-whites. Despite the efforts of a small group of missionaries to create a better society, which achieved fitful success, wealth was concentrated in very few hands, while the majority lived in deep poverty. The situation hardly improved when local leaders of European descent threw off rule from Spain at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in many respects it worsened.

The prostration of large parts of Paraguayan society had not arisen because most Paraguayans were idle and lacking in initiative – they were not. Millions of them ended up emigrating to other countries where their industriousness was sought, though it was often badly rewarded. The difficulties of Paraguayans stemmed mainly from the fact that the rich continued to protect their privileges as they had over the centuries, in latter days refusing to pay taxes to provide the minimum standards of welfare which were taken for granted in other countries.

From 1947 until 2008 the same political party, the Asociación Nacional Republicana, or National Republican Association, universally known as the Colorados or Reds, had maintained the status quo and kept itself in power through a combination of trickery, corruption and terror.

Their most notorious leader, General Alfredo Stroessner, maintained himself as a dictator from 1954 to 1989. He had enjoyed the overt support of the dictatorships that flowered and died in neighbouring Latin American republics – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay – and the backing of Western governments, which was no less effective for being largely hidden. Since the military coup that overthrew Stroessner in 1989, and despite the murderous rivalries among their leaders, the Colorados had maintained their power and the social system, which favoured a small minority. It took Lugo to start changing all that.

This is an account of how a talented and determined young man, who grew up in a pious Catholic family during the days of Stroessner, resolved to do what he could to better the grievous situation. After all, the state in which Paraguay found itself was in no small part the responsibility of his Church. The country took shape as a colony of a European power and was moulded by the ideas of Christianity brought over by Europeans. Fernando Lugo therefore resolved to help do away with the scorn to which centuries of colonialism and decades of misgovernment had reduced it. He studied and worked hard, made his mark in the Church and the wider society, becoming associated with the founders of liberation theology, which was growing stronger in the atmosphere of openness that surrounded the convening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII in 1962. He was named the bishop of a poor diocese, and in his middle years decided he could be most effective as a politician rather than as a cleric.


The accession to the Paraguayan presidency on 15 August 2008 of Lugo, once a bishop of the Catholic diocese, marked not just a further strengthening of the reform movement in Latin America to which others, such as Lula of Brazil, Chávez of Venezuela, Morales of Bolivia and Correa of Ecuador, had already contributed, and which was enjoying the benefits of favourable economic circumstances in the region. It also signified the happy re-emergence of the sort of reforms that had been championed for decades by liberation theologians and which their opponents – from Pope John Paul II to Ronald Reagan, president of the United States – had done much to suppress, the former intellectually and the latter by force of arms. The election of the candidate for change in the Latin American country that was more than any other stamped with the sign of its indigenous past – no indigenous language in the region enjoys the currency that Guaraní does in Paraguay – was also part of a new concern with the cultures of pre-Columbian peoples. In the 1950s, for instance, demands began to be heard for more just treatment from the score of indigenous nations living within the Republic of Guatemala. These were met with revolt and bloodshed enthusiastically backed by foreign governments, from which Guatemala has not yet fully recovered.

But the movement for indigenous rights was not to be suppressed by bayonets and torture chambers. In the twentieth century it continued to manifest itself in domestic politics from the Chiapas region in Mexico in 1994 to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Once in office, Lugo strengthened his links with President Evo Morales in La Paz, who came to power on a platform of fairer conditions for the indigenous peoples of the Andes. The prospects for tens of millions of native peoples – and the poor of all races – began to look brighter.

The festivities that surrounded the inauguration of Lugo said much about his plans for the future as he prepared to execute them.

Few enough presidents in Latin America have taken up office in their shirtsleeves without a tie; many have tried to give the impression of being more familiar with the starchy protocol of European aristocracy or the military or naval academies such as Saint-Cyr or Sandhurst than with the lives of their fellow citizens. Lugo decided to take up his presidency in a dazzling white traditional shirt, the ao po'i, and grey trousers secured by a black leather belt. To the scandalized cries of a few he even dared to wear sandals. The message was obvious – the formalities of a past age had been superseded.

He was not alone in his informal style of dress. President Evo Morales of neighbouring Bolivia was also without a suit or tie but was in the rich ceremonial dress of his race, the Aymara of the Andean highlands. (The last time Morales had been seen in a suit and tie, they said, had been in 1977 when he posed for the photograph taken when he received his school-leaving certificate. On his world tour after his electoral victory in December 2005, the Bolivian had visited royalty and presidents wearing a woolly jumper.) A third head of state, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, also dispensed with orthodox formalities of dress. He arrived with his good-looking wife, also without a tie, but with a well-cut jacket covering his colourfully embroidered shirt. President Hugo Chávez had a bright blue tie on some of the time, but he also dispensed with it at other times, opening a khaki shirt to reveal a red vest.

Sitting near Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Lula, the president of Brazil whose supposedly anti-capitalist political programme and subsequent electoral victory in the 2002 elections had pitched the readers of the Wall Street Journal into such gloom, looked a model of sartorial orthodoxy in a dark suit and a sober blue-and-white tie. Only the shortened finger, the tip of which he left under a steel press in the Sao Paulo factory where he had worked, gave a clue to his former existence as the hero of hundreds of thousands of Brazilian industrial workers.

Prominent among the guests in shirtsleeves and a beret was the octogenarian Ernesto Cardenal, the priest-poet of liberation theology and the government minister whom Pope John Paul II made famous worldwide by shaking his finger at him in reproof on his arrival in Managua in 1983 as the Nicaraguan knelt before him. Also there was Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian from Brazil. Through their years of teaching and pressure for reform in the Church, Boff and Cardenal had provided the new leader with much religious inspiration. Also invited was the Uruguayan left-wing writer Eduardo Galeano, who took the opportunity of apologizing to Lugo, a man with a passion for history, for Uruguay's part in the nineteenth-century War of the Triple Alliance, when his country, Brazil and Argentina attacked their eager and headstrong Paraguayan neighbours.

Prominent among the absentee heads of state were President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Washington's main ally in Latin America, and President Alan García of Peru, once the fire-breathing foe of international banks, now the champion of foreign investors and increasingly unpopular with voters in his own country.

Lugo delivered his inaugural speech, one part in the Guaraní of the majority of his fellow citizens, the other part in Spanish. 'Today', he declared, 'marks the end of an exclusive Paraguay, a Paraguay of secrets, a Paraguay known for its corruption; today is the start of a Paraguay whose government and whose citizens will have no truck with those who steal from the people, with actions which cloud over transparency in public life and with those few feudal lords of a strange country of yesteryear which has somehow survived to the present day.'

Distinguished guests came in their hundreds. Ricardo Lagos, the former president of Chile, was also among the many notables, as was Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner and once the chief economist at the World Bank. Stiglitz, now one of the Bank's fiercest critics, had delivered a hard-hitting lecture on development economics the previous day in Asunción.

The swearing-in ceremony was followed by a quick visit to a leper colony and a gathering to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the fire in which hundreds died and hundreds more were injured when the owners locked them inside the Ycua Bolanos supermarket lest they neglect to pay for the goods they were buying. At the party afterwards Lugo and Chavez took the stage to croon suitable songs of protest.


The tasks that faced Lugo as he took over on 20 August were immense, since Stroessner after his thirty-six-year dictatorship and the Colorados and their sixty-one-year regime had left Paraguay like a house stricken with dry rot. Behind the mirage of decency – supposedly free elections in a supposed democracy; a supposed system of justice; a supposed respect for people's human and economic rights; a claim to be part of the supposed 'free world'; a supposed respect for minorities and indigenous peoples – there lay advanced decay. According to the UN Development Programme's Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and purchasing power, Paraguay stood in 98th place on a list of 179 countries. If Lugo wanted to carry out the necessary changes he had to have very good plans.

As he prepared to take on the Herculean task of reconstructing Paraguay's economy after the six decades of maladministration and pillage by the Colorados, two of Lugo's main sources of economic advice were Borda, his choice for economy minister, and Joseph Stiglitz, the economist from the World Bank. Borda had, from 2003 to 2005, been finance minister to Nicanor Duarte, from whom Lugo was accepting the presidency. Duarte was the last of an unbroken chain of eleven consecutive presidents from the Colorado party.

Borda's strategy was based on the initial priority of bringing the country into line with most others in the world by curing the gravest deficiency of the state, the chronic lack of money which prevented it from undertaking the most rudimentary tasks of any state.

The first job, Borda commented in June 2008, was the establishment of a professional civil service, hitherto lacking in Paraguay, which would have the capacity to execute the government's policies and which would be out of the reach of political manipulation. That would demand some coherence in the levels of reward civil servants and public sector employees in general could expect in return. 'What we've got now is a real chaos,' he commented, with individuals answering not to the interests of the state but to political interests.

Second, greater professionalism was needed in a situation where those with responsibility had little managerial experience and where there was no coordination among government bodies – with the exception of that between the Finance Ministry and the Central Bank. There was no National Investment Plan, no National Infrastructure Plan, and the lack of tax revenue to construct basic infrastructure, combined with Paraguay's position as a landlocked country, was a serious drag on economic growth. Of Paraguay's 30,000 kilometres of road, for instance, only 5,000 kilometres were surfaced and capable of being used in all weather.


Excerpted from The Priest of Paraguay by Hugh O'Shaughnessy, Edgar Venerando Ruiz Díaz. Copyright © 2009 Hugh O'Shaughnessy and Edgar Venerando Ruiz Diaz. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Illustrations, vi,
Acknowledgements, vii,
Abbreviations and acronyms, viii,
Key figures, x,
Chronology, xii,
Map, xvi,
1 The bishop becomes president, 1,
2 An island surrounded by land, 15,
3 Stroessner pounces, 34,
4 Verbistas and liberacionistas, 53,
5 The rise of Lugo, 81,
6 A new Paraguay?, 121,
Postscript: mothers and children, 127,
Bibliography, 133,
Index, 136,

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The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
ZedBooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
'Paraguay has been a disgrace even by the ugly standards of US domination of Latin America. The election of Fernando Lugo offers a promising opportunity for it to break the chains, and to join much of the rest of South America towards what may be a brighter future for the vast majority who have suffered repression and misery, and in particular for the indigenous population, now rising throughout the subcontinent, which has become in many ways the most exciting part of the world. There could be no one better placed to bring these events to the general public than Hugh O'Shaughnessy. His work on Latin America has been outstanding in its historical depth, subtle insight and sympathetic understanding of the travails of the population, and the intricacies of the domestic structures and international environment.' - Noam Chomsky'Hugh O'Shaughnessy's fine, pioneering study of the liberation priest who is now President of Paraguay, is also a story of persistent constatation against tyranny, corruption, poverty and conservative Catholicism.' - Richard Bourne'Those who know little about South America and less about Paraguay will benefit greatly from this fascinating book. It records a history overshadowed by exploitation, cruelty and oppression at the hands of various wealthy oligarchies, often United States backed. Now Paraguay has a new President, Fernando Lugo, who was elected against the odds in 2008.An ex -Bishop and no saint he has already begun social justice programmes which can inspire us here too.' - Bruce Kent'Few countries are as shrouded in as much mystery as Paraguay. The site of a turbulent colonial history in which its indigenous peoples were both exploited by Europeans and sheltered by them in Jesuit organized missions, it reeled through the nineteenth century with more constitutional changes than virtually any other country. In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it endured dictatorships, the most recent that of General Stroessner which lasted into the late twentieth century. With an economy based on vast agricultural holdings and a thriving contraband trade, today Paraguay is governed by a reformist former Catholic bishop. The increasing strength of a mobilized indigenous population and civil society more generally, resulted in the election of Fernando Lugo in June 2008, a most atypical Paraguayan politician. Hugh O'Shaughnessy recounts the coalition of factors that made his election possible, as well as the personal trajectory of the president from priest to bishop to president. The complexities of Paraguayan politics are skillfully explored, as well as the complexities of the new president's personality, in all its contradictions. One would have to hunt far and wide to find a more useful analysis of contemporary Paraguay and its new leadership. Where Lugo will lead Paraguay is unclear, but the likelihood of substantial change is clearly signaled by O'Shaughnessy's study.' Professor Margaret E. Crahan 'This book is a very readable account of the emergence of the person who has made Paraguay a country to be taken seriously again, and especially of the context - both political and ecclesiastical - that shaped him. An excellent introduction to Paraguay and its politics.' - Peadar Kirby, Professor of International Politics and Public Policy, University of Limerick'An excellent biography of Fernando Lugo and his conversion from priest to president during Paraguay's rocky road to democracy. Hugh O'Shaughnessy's expert knowledge of the deep divisions between traditional and progressive elements inside the Catholic Church also situates the 'Lugo' phenomenon within the wider struggle for social justice in Latin America.' - Andrew Nickson, International Development Department, University of Birmingham'This brisk narrative of Fernando Lugo's rise to the Paraguayan presidency is a captivating read for anyone who wants to understand the politics and society of ¿the island surrounded by land.¿ O'Shaughnessy and V