The red bishop in Paraguay

lundi 17 mars 2008
Lecture .

"The Red Bishop in Paraguay" ( "L’évêque rouge du Paraguay") constitue une brillante contribution pour comprendre la situation politique de ce pays. La prochaine élection présidentielle s’y tiendra en avril. Un des candidats, Fernando Lugo ( "l’évêque rouge"), porte tous les espoirs des classes populaires. Son élection renforcerait la dynamique de changement en Amérique latine.
Ce texte de Richard Gott, journaliste et historien britannique, est publié dans le numéro de février 2008 de la revue de référence anglaise "The London Review of Books".

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Par Richard Gott

Review of Books, vol.30, No 4, 21 February 2008


Asunción, January 2008

At one end of the desolate park that stretches down from the public buildings of Asunción to the great bay adjacent to the Paraguay River, where Spanish conquistadors first found refuge in this remote inland region in the 16th century, stands a strange construction of concrete and metal that looks more like a contemporary artwork than a sculptured memorial. Scrambled within the cement are bronze hands sticking out and an upturned human face, crushed beneath an immense cube of concrete. Yet this is no artist’s fancy but an Ozymandias-style monument, the destroyed remains of the statue of General Alfredo Stroessner, one of the infamous dictatorial figures of the second half of the 20th century. He ruled here for thirty-four years, from a coup d’état in 1954 until his overthrow in 1989, an annus mirabilis in Paraguay as well as in Eastern Europe.

 Of all the evil dictators in dark glasses that ruled in Latin America in those years, Stroessner was both the first and the last, his regime largely protected from enquiring eyes by its inaccessibility and its secret police. Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul, published in 1973, was set among the exiles in Corrientes, across the Argentine frontier, yet it caught successfully the claustrophobic atmosphere of 20th century Paraguay. The country’s greatest novelist, Augusto Roa Bastos, long exiled in France, wrote the definitive novel about a Latin American dictator, that evokes the perversities of the Stroessner era. His book, I The Supreme, published in 1974, was ostensibly a biography of Dr Francia, the austere independence leader of the 19th century, but no Paraguayan reader could miss its contemporary references.

 Most travel journalists have given Paraguay a wide berth, and the few that penetrate its defences tell a depressing tale. Yet many left wing writers, from Perry Anderson to Eric Hobsbawm, as well as several novelists aside from Graham Greene, have been drawn to this isolated and landlocked country, intrigued by its heroic history in the 19th century, by the survival of Guaraní, its Indian lingua franca, by the ruins of the 18th century Jesuit missions, once visited by Voltaire’s Candide, and by its strange utopian settlement schemes, including the one established briefly by Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth. Three recent novels have told the story of Eliza Lynch, an Irish adventuress who lived with Francisco Solano López. As president, he led the country’s unsuccessful defence in the 1860s against an invasion by the forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay – the War of the Triple Alliance – that was fomented and encouraged by the British. The best imaginative account of his and Eliza’s story is The Pleasuring of Eliza Lynch by the Man Booker prize-winner Anne Enright

 I count myself among the dedicated aficionados of Paraguay, my enthusiasm first aroused some forty years ago when I drove on a dirt road across the Chaco, the vast and then almost trackless waste of scrub and marsh that extends westward from the Paraguay River to Bolivia. At that remote frontier, unguarded, stood cast-iron markers, erected in 1939 by a team from the moribund League of Nations, then on its final mission at the end of Paraguay’s “Chaco War” with Bolivia. This brutal war was fought over oil, and entire regiments died of thirst when the opposing side prevented their access to infrequent water holes. Paraguay claimed victory ; but Bolivia secured the oil. Inhabited only by free-ranging groups of Indians and by Mennonite settlers from Russia and Canada, and punctuated by huge cattle ranches and occasional military forts (and more recently by a US satellite tracking station at Mariscal Estigarríbia), the empty Chaco occupies half the land space of Paraguay, an enduring symbol of the country’s underdevelopment.

 I have made many subsequent visits, but I returned this year to investigate the possibility of an imminent seismic upheaval. The leftist winds of change sweeping through Latin America in the past decade have also been blowing into the forgotten corners of Paraguay, reviving indigenous movements and ancient peasant struggles against landlords old and new. The process that began with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela nearly ten years ago, in December 1998, and continued with the emergence of leftist presidents at the head of powerful indigenous movements in the Andean countries of Bolivia and Ecuador, may yet produce a surprise result in Paraguay’s presidential elections in April. Fernando Lugo, a bearded 56-year-old former bishop, emerged last year as the unexpected candidate of a freshly-minted left-wing opposition, and has been leading the opinion polls ever since. With a doctorate in sociology and a surviving enthusiasm for liberation theology, his supporters call him “El Bueno”, the good one.

 In the two decades since the overthrow of General Stroessner (who eventually died at the age of 93 in 2006 in well-funded exile in Brasilia), not much news has percolated out of Paraguay, and I am sure that many people have imagined (or hoped) that the old dictator was replaced by some kind of democracy and that everyone lived happily ever after. Not so, alas. Among the brief news items that reached the outside world in those years were the conviction of two civilian presidents for corruption and fraud ; the assassination of a vice-president ; the kidnap and murder of a president’s daughter ; and the organisation of two coups d’état (one successful, the other less so). Behind a veneer of free market prosperity, most people are worse off today than in the days of dictatorship. Those once driven into exile for political reasons have been replaced by those who leave from economic necessity. Some two million Paraguayans (out of a population of nearly seven million) now live in Argentina, Spain, and the United States. Neo-liberal economic policies and privatisation, encouraged by Washington, replaced the state paternalism of the Stroessner years, and tens of thousands were thrown out of work.

 This is a familiar staple of the Latin American story, yet what makes Paraguay different is the scale of the corruption that undermines the sustaining structures of the state. Corruption in many countries is difficult to pin down : the small-print detail of bank loans never repaid, the percentages hidden in the accounts of trans-national companies, or the simple backhanders provided in suitcases replete with dollar bills. These can all be hard to trace. Yet in Paraguay corruption is crystal clear and unavoidable. Everyone is on the take, and everything has its price.

 This is especially true when it comes to voting. An acquaintance told me of a particular scam in his own neighbourhood in Asunción, during the primary elections within the ruling Colorado Party. His uncle was in charge of a local precinct and, armed with the fact that there were ten voters within his own immediate family, he approached the party authorities with a request for an air conditioner. This was the going rate, between 10 and 20 dollars per vote. A day later, on the front page of ABC Color, a daily paper often critical of the government, a photograph showed people emerging happily from a party office with outsize bags of groceries. The paper also reported that Nicanor Duarte, the outgoing president, had sought to ensure the victory of Blanca Ovelar, the Colorado candidate that he had selected, by publicly insisting that all members of the civil service should vote for her. The media expressed their outrage at this shameless impropriety, but the president defended his remarks with vigour. You can’t join the bureaucracy unless you have a party card.

 The Colorado Party, the most powerful political organisation in Latin America, has ruled without interruption for more than sixty years. While General Stroessner had the backing of the armed forces, he needed the party’s electoral machine to reinforce his control. It long preceded his seizure of power, and it retains huge influence to this day. The military may have taken a back seat since his downfall, but his civilian heirs have used the party to entrench themselves in power. With its assistance they have directed the country’s wealth, derived largely from the export of electricity (produced from hydro-electric dams on the Paraná River) as well as from agriculture (cattle and the ubiquitous soya bean), into the bank accounts of a tiny middle class. Fierce political battles take place every four years within a handful of elite families to seize control of the party, the key to the subsequent presidential election, and to the state treasury. Yet this year the party’s candidate might just lose to a radical outsider.

 I drove into the country from Brazil, crossing the Paraná River frontier from the tourist resort of Foz do Iguacú (close to the famous cataracts) to Ciudad del Este (the largest free port shopping centre outside Panama), and then on for five hours to Asunción. A few miles upstream from the frontier crossing lies one of the two principal sources of Paraguay’s income, the trough at which the traditional political class has become accustomed to feed (and the greatest cause of current political controversy). The gigantic hydro-electric dam at Itaipú is one of the man-made wonders of the world, supplying electricity to the insatiable industrial belt of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Its first generator started operating in 1984 and the last (of twenty) opened last year. The dam is jointly owned by Brazil and Paraguay, but 95 per cent of Paraguay’s share of the electricity produced is sold to Brazil ; Paraguay lives off this sale.

 A few days later, I drove south from Asunción for six hours to the Argentine frontier to look at the other great dam at Yacyretá, finished in 1994, where the electricity deal (with Argentina) is similar to the one with Brazil. An immense lake created by the dam spreads over parts of southern Paraguay, although it has only reached 80 per cent of its eventual size. The lower streets of the town of Encarnación have already been flooded and thousands have lost their homes.

 The future of the income produced by these dams is a central issue in the April election. Will it continue to be shared out among the country’s wealthy classes or might it be made available to improve the conditions of the poor ? And might a new president have the courage to secure a larger income by renegotiating the existing energy agreements with Brazil and Argentina, widely judged to be unfair to Paraguay ? In Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, the signing of fresh treaties with foreign companies investing in oil and gas has been a defining feature of their governments’ radicalism.

 Another important issue is the revival of ancestral agrarian struggles, exacerbated by the current world demand for soya and by the arrival of hundreds of additional Brazilian landowners and their attendant workforce. (More than half a million Brazilians, known as Brasiwayos, now live as squatters in Paraguay.) In many areas the soya fields stretch far on either side of the road, and soya (genetically modified, of course) can also be found in seemingly impenetrable forest regions. These developments have brought violent conflicts between ousted local farmers and rapacious soya landowners, and the emergence of new political players in the countryside. Since no recent land survey exists, and few peasants have title to their farms, they can be dislodged with relative ease.

 Traditionally the Colorado Party has been all-powerful, manipulating the discourses of right and left according to the demands of the moment. Sometimes it will appear as the protagonist of progressive reform, at others it will portray itself as a bastion of stability and conservatism, yet it has always identified itself successfully with the cause of Paraguayan nationalism. President Duarte calls it “a civil religion more than a political organisation.” To be Paraguayan is to be a Colorado.

 Yet this year the party bosses are not so confident. Duarte is singularly unpopular, and Blanca Ovelar, his chosen candidate, suffers by association. The party has experienced severe internal divisions in primary elections that hamper its appeal as a national unifier. Two external candidates have emerged with serious popular support. On the left is Lugo, the former bishop much admired by the peasant movements. On the right is General Lino Oviedo, once a young officer at Stroessner’s right hand, who then helped organise the coup against him in 1989. Both men are charismatic figures with a mass audience.

 Oviedo, aged 64, was formerly the head of the armed forces, remaining as such until 1996, when he sought unsuccessfully to organise a further coup. In the subsequent decade, he appeared briefly as a disallowed presidential candidate, and spent time in exile in Argentina and Brazil. He also served several years in prison on charges of coup plotting, of slaughtering unarmed civilians, and of murdering a vice-presidential candidate. This has done nothing to undermine his popularity, and in spite of, or because of, his dramatic trajectory, he has remained a popular political figure within the ranks of the poor, although some say that his appeal is waning. A fluent Guaraní speaker, he has often been perceived as a potential saviour from outside the corrupt existing system, and he was released from prison in October by presidential decree, to help sabotage the prospects of the bishop by dividing the protest vote.

 Fernando Lugo appeals to the same constituency. I went to meet him at his headquarters in the northern suburbs of the city. With greying hair and white beard, he has an authoritative air, as if accustomed to command. You could imagine him as a bishop or a schoolmaster or a university vice-chancellor. His advisers say they had to persuade him to leave out the traditional blessing at the end of his speeches. His manner is certainly benign and avuncular, part natural and part acquired over years of service in a missionary organisation. With a huge throaty laugh, he asks me if I want a short sermon or a long one, and as we talk he takes sips of mate from a leather-covered thermos. Mate with hot water is the tea leaf of choice in Argentina and southern Brazil, but in Paraguay they drink it cold.

 I ask him first about his life’s story, for he comes from a political family. His mother was the sister of Epifanio Méndez Fleitas, a famous politician, musician and writer who became the leader of a radical faction within the Colorado Party in the 1950s. Méndez had been the police chief and then the president of the central bank in the government that preceded Stroessner’s coup in 1954. He lived in exile in Argentina, presiding over the Movimiento Popular Colorado (MOPOCO), the political focus of the Paraguayan exiles. Three of Lugo’s elder brothers, influenced by their uncle, were politically active in the 1950s within the Partido Colorado Auténtico, a group opposed to Stroessner, yet they too were forced into exile – to Argentina, to Sweden and to France.

 Lugo’s father also had experience of exile, working in Corrientes like the hero of The Honorary Consul, for an English company that exported tea. Later he moved back to Paraguay, and sold Scottish cashmere shawls and jumpers in a shop in Encarnación. He was a local justice of the peace (juez de paz), a kind of community court with the power to arrest people for minor crimes. The Lugo children were brought up very strictly and sent to religious schools, although their parents were not practising Christians.

 Fernando was the youngest boy, and, after what had happened to his uncle and his brothers, his parents tried to protect him from too intense an interest in politics. He joined no political group, and he taught for a year in a primary school at Hohenau, outside Encarnación, before coming under the influence of the Misioneros del Verbo Divino, a missionary organisation of German origin in the 19th century that had long been active within settler communities in South America. A German missionary would come once a month to his school, and Lugo began to ask himself why such priests had to come from abroad. Should there not be Paraguayan missionaries ? To the surprise of his family, who had hopes of him becoming a lawyer, he decided to join them,

 He studied at the Catholic university in Asunción in 1972 and soon followed in the family tradition, becoming a leading student activist. He was ascetically inclined, and he went to live in Chacarita, a shanty town that fringes the Paraguay River below the Stroessner statue. Once enrolled as a priest, he worked in a parish in Asunción before leaving in 1978 for mission service in Ecuador. There he worked for several years with young people, with the prison service, and with nuns in a closed community. He also lived with peasants and in indigenous communities, meeting for the first time the exponents of liberation theology.

 Returning to a parish in Encarnación in 1982, he was soon in trouble with military intelligence who followed him around and taped his sermons. Eventually the local bishop was approached by the authorities and told that Lugo should be sent abroad “for the security of the country.” He went to study social science in Rome, taking time off in the holidays to work in a Mercedes Benz factory in Germany, in Sindelfingen near Stuttgart.

 He returned to Paraguay in 1987 as professor of theology, and was soon appointed to the council of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), the influential church body that promoted the continent-wide debates about liberation theology, then under fierce attack from Pope John Paul 11. After going back to Rome to finish his doctorate, he became head of the Verbo Divino missionaries in Paraguay, their first Paraguayan leader. In 1994, he was chosen to be the bishop of San Pedro in the poorest area of the country. There he lived for eleven years, working with the peasants and campaigning alongside them in their struggles for land. He gained their confidence, but soon lost that of the local landowners, who accused him of protecting guerrilla cells and of supporting kidnappers.

 Gradually he came to feel that his position as a bishop was not sufficient to change the situation. He was worn out and exhausted, and getting nowhere, and in April 2004, he resigned from his bishopric. He discussed with friends a possible political future, and in March 2006 he was the principal speaker at a huge demonstration in Asunción, protesting successfully against President Duarte’s plan for re-election. By December, he had helped to create a new political movement, Tekojoja, meaning “life and equality” in Guaraní. More than 100,000 people signed a petition requesting him to abandon the priesthood and to stand as a presidential candidate. Under the existing Paraguayan constitution, a priest cannot be elected president. Still an emeritus bishop, Lugo presented his resignation from the priesthood to the papal nuncio, and in January 2006 he received a message from Rome that his request had been refused by the Pope. Although perceived by some at the time as a Vatican manoeuvre to sabotage his political career, it was simply the customary papal response to such requests. Resigning priests should be given time to reconsider their decision.

 Lugo embarked on serious political negotiations with the existing opposition groups, and formed a broad electoral alliance with a progressive programme. The Alianza Patriótica para el Cambio (APC), the patriotic alliance for change, was created in August 2006 from a wide spectrum of social movements, trade unions, and a dozen small political parties – including the Christian Democrats, socialists of various hues, and radical splinters from the Colorado Party. The Alianza also established a vital strategic relationship with the old Liberal Party, the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), the largest of the traditional opposition parties. Lugo became the presidential candidate of this alliance, with Federico Franco from the Liberals as his vice-president. Their six point programme includes a land reform (and a land survey), a reform of the judiciary, and a “recovery of sovereignty” – taken to mean a revision of the existing unequal treaties with Brazil and Argentina that govern the use of Itaipú and Yacyretá. This might seem a reformist programme, but in the context of Paraguay it is not far short of revolutionary.

 The word “patriotic” in Lugo’s alliance is the word now used by the Paraguayan left to replace the word “nationalist”, an expression effectively identified with the Colorados and the right. One of the peculiarities of Paraguay is its deeply embedded sense of nationalism, both real and invented, derived from the achievements of Dr Francia and Solano López in the 19th century, and reinforced by two disastrous wars with its neighbours (the War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay from 1864-1870, and the Chaco War against Bolivia from 1932-1935). The left, reluctant to identify with the authoritarianism of the nationalistic rulers of the 19th century or with the chauvinism rampant during the Chaco War, allowed the rich nationalist tradition to be exploited by the right, and has only recently begun to carve out a fresh historical version of its own.

 The appeal of the new radical governments in Latin America are based in part on a revisionist re-reading of the past, and I asked Lugo to provide his own account of Paraguayan history. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has evoked the revolutionary rhetoric of Simón Bolívar, the military liberator, and of Simón Rodríguez, the philosopher of education and anti-racism. Rafael Correa of Ecuador has praised the achievements of Eloy Alfaro, a revolutionary Liberal president at the turn of the last century, while Evo Morales of Bolivia has recovered five hundred years of indigenous rebellion.

 Like Morales, Lugo takes up the case of indigenous resistance. “Paraguay was originally a country of aboriginal peoples who define our culture to this day. We are proud that we still maintain our indigenous language, and we have much to learn from them, in terms of organisation and resistance and life in general.

 “When the Spaniards arrived in Paraguay, the Guaraní offered considerable opposition, but many stories were circulated, by the conquistadors of course, to suggest that they were very submissive and handed over their women and the men too, but of course this was not so. They were always mistrustful, and many rebellions were never recorded ; and many had women leaders.”

 The Paraguayans freed themselves from the Spanish in the 19th century, says Lugo, “and the independence struggle was supported by very simple people, by people from the provinces, not from Asunción. In San Pedro, where I was the bishop, the participation of women was exceptional.”

 But unfortunately, he says, “new forms of slavery appeared, the English arrived with their capital, their companies, their people. The real development of Paraguay was destroyed by the genocidal struggle of the War of the Triple Alliance, and again by the Chaco War of the 1930s.”

 Paraguayan history has been marked by this story of external domination, says Lugo, “but Paraguayans are a people who have always been searching for something different, for an alternative of liberty and equality. This is deeply rooted in the Paraguayan people, and the search for the ‘Land Without Evil’, for spaces or territories where evil is not present, lies at the centre of the Guaraní religion.” Lugo believes that the values of the indigenous peoples have to be recovered and upheld, as a serious challenge to a society where the legends of the conquistadores, and those of the huge influx of German settlers in the 20th century, have been predominant for so long.

 Can this almost religious rhetoric, and the huge personal following that Lugo has acquired, be translated into victory at the polls in April ? Conventional wisdom would suggest not, for the Colorado Party is still the principal obstacle to any outsider securing victory at the polls.

 “If this were a conventional election campaign we would not have a chance,” I was told by one of Lugo’s close advisers. “The Colorado machine has become ever more powerful ; it has the organisation, the discipline, the resources, and the support. We cannot compete at that level.” Yet the atmosphere this year has been different.

 “There is a tremendous sense of restlessness among the people that you can almost touch,” his campaign adviser points out. “They are feeling their way towards Fernando, and at public meetings they stick to him like bees to honey. I first became aware of these huge reserves of energy a year ago, and if we can canalise it and if the people really decide to move, they will be unstoppable. Of course many of our supporters are sceptical, but this is the only way forward, and I think it is beginning to happen. Lugo is moving away from being a bishop and has become a competent politician.”

 Lino Oviedo, the populist general, may be more of a threat to the bishop than the Colorados, but Lugo’s adviser explains how he has gone “up and down in the polls ; his performance is very unsure. Ten years ago people saw him as the only option, but he is not the same man today.” He has allied himself with the Brazilian landowners, who are the financial backers of his campaign, and he has been photographed with President Lula of Brazil. With such friends, he has lost a lot of support.

 Earlier attempts in the post-Stroessner decades to put forward outsider candidates received considerable attention, yet they all failed on election day. Lugo’s appeal is different. Previous efforts failed because they were based solely on the Liberal Party, always a movement with much smaller appeal than the Colorados. Lugo’s chances are enhanced by the fact that he campaigns from within the Colorado tradition, with family links to the progressive movement within the party for more than half a century. With Liberal and some Colorado support, plus that of the social movements that are less easy to quantify, the arithmetic could stack up for Lugo.

 What of the United States, that great supporter of democracy throughout the region ? The US embassy has taken over two floors of the Sheraton hotel to house its CIA contingent, pending refurbishment and extension to the embassy itself, while James Cason, the Guaraní-speaking ambassador, has been brought in from a posting in Cuba, where his funding of members of the local dissident movement led to their arrest and imprisonment. And what of the British ? They thought other parts of the world were more interesting, and they closed their embassy in Paraguay permanently three years ago. They are now represented by an honorary consul.


Richard Gott is an honorary fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the university of London, and the author of several books about Latin America, including “Land Without Evil : Utopian Journeys Across the Latin American Watershed.”


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