In Paraguay, a bishop upsets church and state

Asuncion, Paraguay - No political party anywhere in the world has been in power longer than the Colorado Party in Paraguay, not even the Kim family's Communist dynasty in North Korea. But a charismatic Roman Catholic bishop recently suspended by the Vatican is now threatening that hegemony and has emerged as the front-runner in the presidential election next year.

The bishop, Fernando Lugo, known as the Bishop of the Poor, is strongly influenced by the theology of liberation, which emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and argues that the Roman 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.

"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 here. "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 favors narrow partisan interests over those of the country."

The Colorado Party 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, because of its tight control of patronage and the bureaucracy, the party managed to retain control of the government once free elections were introduced.

Lugo, 55, is a spellbinding orator in both Spanish and Guaraní, 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.

In speeches, he rails against corruption and injustice, saying "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 Roman Catholic 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.

In a letter made public Feb. 1, Cardinal Giovanni Batista Re, the Vatican official who supervises bishops, wrote that Lugo must "remain in the clerical state and continue to be obliged to its inherent duties," because "the episcopacy is a service accepted freely and forever."

He added that "the candidacy of a bishop would be a cause of confusion and division among the faithful, an offense to the laity."

Lugo ignored the ruling and declared his candidacy this month. Church officials have responded with warnings of more severe sanctions, with one Paraguayan bishop warning that he is "exposing himself to the punishment of excommunication" unless he desists. It now seems likely that only a ruling by the Supreme Court or the electoral tribunal here can determine Lugo's eligibility for office.

Both those institutions are regarded here as beholden to the Colorado Party and therefore inclined to keep him off the ballot. But Lugo's legal advisers argue that the Vatican's edict has no more judicial validity in Paraguay than its prohibition on divorce or contraception.

"The government is going to try to use the Church's arguments to kick him off the field, but Paraguay is a lay state and the Constitution, not canon law, is the final authority," said Rafael Filizzola Serra, a member of Congress who supports Lugo and is a constitutional law specialist. "The pope does not have the authority to tell him he can't run. Lugo has renounced the priesthood, and he has the same right as any citizen to be a candidate."

José Alberto Alderete, president of the governing party, scoffed at speculation that the government was maneuvering to exclude Lugo from the ballot, saying, "We want to compete" and are confident of victory because "we are the party of change."

He criticized Lugo, whose family belonged to the Colorado Party but opposed the Stroessner dictatorship, as a dangerous and divisive rabble-rouser.

Lugo's adversaries have sought to undermine his support among the middle class, which has responded strongly to his anti-corruption stance, by portraying him as a "Red bishop" and "radical priest" who would steer Paraguay sharply to the left.

They suggest that if elected he would immediately align himself with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia.

In published interviews, Lugo has described Chávez's march toward "21st - century socialism" as "interesting and different" and "very stimulating." When asked to be specific about what he likes there, however, he took pains to distance himself from the Venezuelan model and said his relationship with the U.S. Embassy here was "very cordial and open" and would remain so if he became president.

"For me, the value of the Venezuelan experiment is the social dimension, the better distribution of wealth for the benefit of the poor majority," he said.

But that, he continued, is also "linked to a strong dose of statism, totally at the service of one person," and "a lack of pluralism," which "is dangerous for a real democracy."

Lugo also made clear his discomfort with the idea that he is any kind of "savior" or "messiah" for Paraguay, as both his followers and critics have sometimes suggested.

His own political style, those who have observed him say, emphasizes consensus and cooperation rather than confrontation, and collaborative leadership over any cult of personality.

"As a priest, he has a good command of group dynamics and is also a superb organizer," Marcial Riquelme, a Paraguayan sociologist who teaches at Kansas State University, said in an interview at his home here.

"He knows how to bring people together who don't like each other and then to mediate all those various sectors to reconcile interests," Riquelme said. "That's a remarkable ability in a country where we are normally at each other's throats."