September 18, 2008
ASUNCION, Paraguay -- When I interviewed Paraguay's new president, Fernando Lugo -- ''the bishop of the poor'' -- here this week, my first question was the one at the center of this country's political discussions: whether he will become a follower of Venezuela's radical populist leader Hugo Chávez or follow the more moderate path of his counterparts in Brazil, Chile or Uruguay.
Since his inauguration a month ago as the first opposition president after six decades of authoritarian rule by the Colorado Party, Lugo has kept everybody guessing. The former Roman Catholic bishop has named respected U.S.-educated economist Dionisio Borda as minister of finance and has vowed to pursue economic stability, yet at the same time has rushed to sign 13 cooperation agreements with Venezuela, and often comes across as flirting with the Chávez government.
The day I interviewed him, Paraguay's leading daily, ABC Color, was carrying a story about Lugo's meeting Sunday with recently resigned Venezuelan Interior Minister Nicolas Maduro, who hours earlier had been accused by the U.S. Treasury of providing funds and weapons to Colombian guerrillas. Paraguayan journalists have speculated that Maduro was in Paraguay to arrange the funneling of military aid to pro-government militias in neighboring Bolivia, behind the back of Bolivia's armed forces.
Another newspaper, Ultima Hora, said that same day that Lugo ``has once said that his model to follow was the government of [Uruguay's President] Tabaré Vázquez. But he's looking more and more like Hugo Chávez.''
When I read him that paragraph, Lugo laughed and asked, ``In what? I believe that the governments that . . . could be a guiding light to us are those of Uruguay and Chile. They are serious governments. With that, I'm not saying that others aren't serious, but these governments have taken economic and political measures that could serve as examples.''
Asked about the political crisis in neighboring Bolivia, which has already resulted in more than 16 deaths, Lugo fully supported Bolivian President Evo Morales and seemed to put all the blame of the bloodshed on the four opposition state governors who are resisting what they say are Morales' unconstitutional measures to impose his socialist revolution.
But, on the other hand, Lugo distanced himself from Morales' and Chávez's claims that the U.S. ''empire'' is backing the opposition governors in an effort to destabilize Bolivia. ''Many have remained stuck in the mindset of the 1970s, of seeing the empire behind even the smallest things that happen in the country. I don't see things that way,'' Lugo said.
Regarding Venezuela's former interior minister's visit to Paraguay, Lugo said he came to discuss various pending agreements. If it weren't for Venezuela's oil aid, Paraguay would have been left without energy last month, Lugo added.
On U.S.-Paraguay joint military exercises and U.S. military training courses in Paraguay, Lugo said that ``I'm open to other countries that are willing to offer the same cooperation deals that we have with the United States. We don't want to get married to just one country.''
Will he seek to change the constitution, introduce the possibility of reelection, create a new political movement and seek a new term like Chávez and his followers have done?, I asked. He answered ''yes'' to the first two questions, ''no'' to the latter two.
''I'm not thinking of reelection. I'm not thinking of founding a party,'' Lugo said. ``That's the difference with those who say that I'm like Hugo Chávez. Fernando Lugo is just a passing bird in the political history of this country. I hope this will be a five-year democratic spring, and that in 2013 I will be able to return to another lifestyle.''
My opinion: Lugo's flirting with Chávez may be partly an effort to obtain Venezuelan oil subsidies, partly a strategy to raise eyebrows in neighboring Brazil, from which Paraguay is demanding a greater share of revenues from the joint Itaipu dam, and partly ideological affinity.
But rather than a messianic leader who will try to perpetuate himself in power, Lugo comes across as the conciliatory former bishop he was until recently -- a smiling priest who walks down his church's aisle blessing everybody, right and left.
In most other countries, that would be a recipe for paralysis. But, if he can avoid ending up co-opted by Chávez, a smiling priest after six decades of one-party rule may amount to a necessary transition that will allow for the emergence of a less corrupt, more modern political class.