August 16, 2008
SAN PEDRO, Paraguay -- Paraguay's new leftist president returned Saturday to the province where he spent 11 years a bishop, and pledged to raise living standards by eradicating poverty and corruption in this South American nation.
Accompanied by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, President Fernando Lugo spoke to about 1,000 peasants gathered in a plaza in San Pedro, the biggest municipality in a neglected province where most eke out a living while rich soy farmers profit from high international commodity prices.
"This is where I learned to love the peasant, the indigenous people, and to admire their efforts to excel despite adverse conditions," Lugo said after arriving in the town of 29,000 several hundred miles (kilometers) north of the capital of Asuncion.
Lugo's inauguration a day earlier was a historic day for Paraguay _ marking the end of a 61-year stranglehold on the presidency by the Colorado Party, which supported the brutal 1954-1989 dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
Chavez told the crowd that oil-rich Venezuela will finance a fertilizer plant in San Pedro and send the country "all the oil Paraguay needs" to ensure that periodic diesel fuel shortages don't get worse.
Chavez gave Lugo a replica of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar's sword and local media said the Paraguayan president promised to use the blade to fight corruption.
Venezuela's state oil company said later that an accord signed by the two leaders guarantees Paraguay up to 23,500 barrels of oil and derivatives daily.
Paraguay's daily consumption of oil products in July was 27,410 barrels of oil products daily, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The poor South American nation has no reserves and depends solely on imports for its petroleum needs.
A week before Lugo was inaugurated, he couldn't find diesel fuel for his SUV at a gas station and suggested that elements of the outgoing Colorado administration could be to blame.
Venezuela said last week that it would also provide Paraguay a one-time supply of 440,476 barrels of diesel to stave off shortages. Paraguay uses 18,000 barrels of diesel daily.
Antonio Gimenez, a 55-year-old pig and vegetable farmer, said in the indigenous Guarani language that he's optimistic the new government may improve prospects for his 12 sons and daughters.
"The hope is that my children will find work and learn a trade to meet their expenses," he said.
Despite widespread elation over his inauguration, Lugo faces huge domestic pressure to make changes fast to ease the deep divide between Paraguay's rich and poor. Elements of the political left and right already have challenged his authority, raising the specter of political chaos and civil unrest.
A land invasion Friday in San Pedro province just before Lugo became president resulted in a shootout that left three people injured, Paraguayan media reported. About 200 people invaded two plantations elsewhere Saturday, the newspaper ABC Color reported.
Teodisio Enciso, who sells knickknacks in San Pedro from his motorcycle, questioned how much change the president can bring about in a society often described as feudal.
"Lugo has good intentions, but I don't know if he'll be able to fulfill his promises in five years," Enciso said.
Associated Press writer Alan Clendenning contributed from Asuncion, Paraguay.