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Former Catholic bishop takes oath as president of Paraguay

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Messenger: Eleazar1234 Sent: 8/15/2008 2:38:23 PM

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ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay: Fernando Lugo, "the bishop of the poor" as he is known here, was sworn in as president of Paraguay on Friday, ending six decades of one-party rule and promising to give land to the landless and to end the nation's entrenched corruption.

But despite his remarkable victory in April, Lugo, a 57-year old former Roman Catholic bishop, faces a challenging road in pursuing his agenda, knowing that the Colorado Party, which ruled Paraguay for 61 years, is still very much ingrained in politics here.

For 35 of those years, the party was dominated by one man, General Alfredo Stroessner, a dictator known for many human rights atrocities. For the past five years it was controlled by the departing president, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who expanded an already bloated and inefficient government bureaucracy.

The election of Lugo, the ultimate outsider who spent 11 years as a priest living in the countryside and working with peasant movements seeking land reform, was a dramatic break with the past for this landlocked country of six million hamstrung by massive inequality and rural poverty.

He was elected promising change on an ill-defined socialist platform and will have to manage the soaring expectations of Paraguayans in what by law is a single five-year term.
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Former Catholic bishop takes oath as president of Paraguay

In his 40-minute inauguration speech, Lugo talked about the need to escape the legacy of decades of dictatorship that had "infiltrated" Paraguay's culture.

"Today marks the end of the elitist and secretive Paraguay, famous for its corruption," Lugo told the huge crowd gathered outside Congress here.

He added: "The change is not just an election question. The change in Paraguay is a cultural challenge, perhaps the most important in its history."

His political skills mostly untested, some analysts say Lugo faces the challenge of distinguishing his socialist goals from those of other populist leaders who have taken power in South America.

Some consider Lugo part of a wave of anti-free-market leftists that include Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, who both nationalized industries and have tried to redistribute wealth to the poor masses.

"This is a candidate who won the elections with almost no government program," said José María Costa, a political columnist for the newspaper Ultima Hora. "It isn't clear what his positions will be."

But Lugo has been careful to avoid being lumped in with those leaders, saying he admires them but considers himself a more moderate independent. In his speech Friday, he noted his admiration for the slain president of Chile, Salvador Allende, who Lugo noted "wanted to construct a better society."

Lugo takes over in a situation more akin to what Vicente Fox encountered in Mexico when he broke the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000. While Chávez had more freedom to operate against a crumbling political opposition after he won election in 1998, Fox had to contend with a resilient PRI.

"Lugo is going to have to show that he can form coalitions with the old party structure," said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "And that is something that Fox was not able to do in Mexico. Lugo has no choice but to make deals and pursue allies to help carry out his policy agenda."

Lugo has already faced a challenge with a growing wave of land invasions that his administration says it believes are part of a campaign led by opposition politicians to destabilize his nascent government.

About 200 farms are under the threat of invasion, political analysts said. The media reported this week, for example, that a group of 150 peasants knocked down two hectares, or about five acres, of a 200-hectare sunflower farm in San Pedro cultivated by a Brazilian farmer.

Lugo has talked about giving titles to the landless to help lift them out of poverty. And he has also spoken of the need to increase agricultural taxes, especially on soybeans, of which Paraguay is the fourth-largest exporter in the world.

Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue said Lugo needed to gain the momentum by making a major, unifying political statement rather than be dragged into the mud of Paraguayan politics.

One area he is quite likely to focus on is relations with neighboring Brazil. Lugo promised during the campaign that he would try to renegotiate with Brazil the unfavorable contract terms of the Itaipu hydroelectric dam, a winning issue with almost all Paraguayans.

Brazilian officials have not signaled a willingness to review the contracts, but Paraguay's long-term stability is important to Brazil.

A bold proposal for land reform could also serve Lugo well. Nestled between Argentina and Brazil, Paraguay has been ranked in a study by the United Nations Development Program as the seventh-highest of 139 countries in terms of inequality. And it is one of the poorest. About 33 percent of Paraguayans live below the poverty line; about a million live abroad.

In addition, one percent of the population owns 77 percent of the land, Frank Mora, a professor of national-security strategy at the National War College, said at a conference in Washington this week.

Growing impatience with corruption and the public perception - especially amid rising unemployment in the cities - that the Colorado Party helped itself to the country's wealth at the exclusion of ordinary Paraguayans ushered Lugo to victory in April.

It was not clear that he would be allowed to make the transition from priest to politician. The Constitution prohibits church officials of any denomination from being elected president, so Lugo resigned as bishop in December 2006. The Vatican initially refused to accept his resignation, but last week Pope Benedict XVI gave him permission to step aside.

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