"Bishop of poor" leads Paraguay presidential race
Defying a demand from the Holy See that he withdraw from Paraguay's presidential race, retired Bishop Fernando Lugo has become the frontrunner in polls in the lead up to the 2008 election.
The International Herald Tribune reports that Lugo, who resigned from all priestly functions in order to take up his campaign, is strongly influenced by the theology of liberation, which emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and argues that the Catholic Church has a special obligation to defend the oppressed and downtrodden.
But he is reluctant to position himself on the political spectrum, arguing that he is interested in solutions, not labels, the Tribune says.
"As I am accustomed to saying, hunger and unemployment, like the lack of access to health and education, have no ideology," he said in an interview.
"My discourse, my person, and my testimony are above political parties, whose own members are desirous of change and want an end to a system that favours narrow partisan interests over those of the country."
Paraguayan politics has long been dominated by the Colorado Party which has been in power without interruption since 1947. General Alfredo Stroessner led a dictatorship notorious for its corruption and brutality from 1954 to 1989, but, thanks to its tight control of patronage and the bureaucracy, the party managed to retain control of the government once free elections were introduced.
According to the Tribune, Lugo, 55, is a spellbinding orator in both Spanish and Guarani, the indigenous language spoken by the peasants and urban poor who make up the majority of the population in this landlocked country of 6.5 million.
Lugo says that "there are too many differences between the small group of 500 families who live with a first world standard of living while the great majority lives in a poverty that borders on misery."
Recent polls here agree that Lugo has become the most respected and popular political figure in the country, and he runs ahead of all other potential candidates in such surveys.
But both church and state are seeking to block his road to the presidential palace, which has led some of his supporters to threaten to take to the streets if he is disqualified.
Paraguay's Constitution forbids ministers of any religious denomination from holding elective office, and the Church enforces a similar prohibition. Lugo resigned from the priesthood in December to free himself from those restrictions, saying "from today on, my cathedral will be the nation," but the Vatican, while suspending him from his duties, has rejected his request to be released from religious orders.
Church officials have warned of severe sanctions, with one Paraguayan bishop warning that he is "exposing himself to the punishment of excommunication" unless he desists.
In Paraguay, 'Bishop of the Poor' out front in 2008 presidential race (International Herald Tribune, 27/2/07)
LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Fernando Lugo (Wikipedia)
Paraguay bishop suspended over presidential ambitions (CathNews, 7/2/07)
28 Feb 2007