Bishop sex scandal can't keep a good reformer down

Priest of Paraguay, by Hugh O'ShaughnessyAmid damage caused by conservative political opponents and his own sexual activity, Fernando Lugo, formerly a Divine Word Missionary and a diocesan bishop in Paraguay, is today his country's elected president, beginning to make a country of paupers ruled by oligarchs a bit juster and more productive.

Born in 1951 to a railway worker and his schoolteacher wife, Lugo was always an ambitious person. As a teenager he set his heart on a military career. Then supporters of the dictator General Alfredo Stroessner told him his family were suspected of disloyalty and he should find something else.

After a period as a teacher he joined the Divine Word Order in 1970. Ordained priest in 1977, he was sent off to Ecuador where he fell under the influence of Leonidas Proaño, the devoted bishop of the Andean diocese of Riobamba. Back home the Order saw he was a big asset to them — but so did the dictatorship. Consequently his superiors felt he would be better kept out of the way again studying in Rome.

He came home in 1987 and by 1994, with Stroessner overthrown, he was appointed bishop of San Pedro, like Riobamba, a rural slum.

He resigned in 2005 and, against Vatican opposition, stood for the presidency and won by a landslide last year.

As a politician Lugo has faced squabbling and racial tension. His revelation at Easter that he fathered a child with a woman who worked in his diocese created headlines in Paraguay and other countries. Yet it does not seem to have done his reputation lasting harm. He is good at politics and his skills as a reformer keep him popular still in a poverty-stricken country where marriage very often loses out to co-habitation.

Conservative politicians who sought to make capital out of his failing have been rebuffed. Recriminations by those who put sexual morality above all else have had to yield to the popular support for his efforts to mend a society which cannot provide the essentials of life for most of its seven million inhabitants.

Appearing at his inauguration in native dress, he has prioritised the majority who have indigenous ancestors and prefer Guaraní to Spanish. He is chasing the potential of Paraguay's sunny climate and well-watered land. Lugo is completing 14 months in office and beginning to make dreams realities.

In the past few decades Paraguay has become one of the world's biggest producers of soya thanks to the efforts of immigrants from neighbouring Brazil. Called Brasiguayos and well provided with investment capital, they have started farming intensively, pushing up acreages and yields.

But the trouble is that the corrupt dictatorship, and the lack of a land register have meant that land title is often questionable and contested. It could not have been otherwise: Stroessner sold off the same ranches to a succession of buyers, collecting the bribes from each and leaving them to fight for possession.

Only now is a constitutional government — which in 2008 took over from the Colorado Party that had been in power longer than the Communist Party had controlled China — starting to promote the serious exploitation of the soil. 'I want Paraguay to be a serious country,' Lugo told me in Asunción, the capital, last year.

He is extending health and social security where he can. In past weeks he has made coverage for domestic servants, previously confined to Asunción, compulsory nationwide. Since 1 September state hospitals are offering more services, including dental care, free.

He still lacks control of Congress and is often hamstrung. The rich will not pay income tax so there is no money for a land register. The big landowners don't want one because that would raise the spectre of land reform and parcels of land going to the landless, the little people. Much better, say the ranchers, if the government were kept on the edge of bankruptcy.

But in July Lugo pulled off a coup. He persuaded President Lula of Brazil to triple to $360 million the payment the Brazilians pay Paraguay for the electric power generated by the Itaipú hydro-electric scheme. This is the world's largest and owned jointly by the two countries. The Paraguayans cannot possibly use their half share, and have to sell much of it off to energy-hungry Brazil.

Once ridiculed as a simple, flawed cleric he is today being seen as a political maestro.

Hugh O'ShaughnessyHugh O'Shaughnessy is, with Edgar Venerando Ruiz Díaz, the author of The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation.

Topic tags: Fernando lugo, paraguay, fathered a child, bishop



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Existing comments

What an inspiring piece. Gives us heart in our little battles for justice and equity in Australia. Thanks Hugh O'Shaugnessy and ES.
Joe Castley | 27 October 2009

It just occurred to me that I don't hear stories like this in any other press. Some of us look down on Central/South America - even north America - as usually right wing banana republic territory, and we of course have a much stronger base of democracy. But we never hear news of a successful leftist movement. How come?
Pat Mahony | 27 October 2009

Thanks for the inspiring and encouraging piece on Lugo of Paraguay.This only shows that quite a few inside the priesthood structure in the Catholic Church are capable of leading people and nations and yet are sadly limited by bureaucratic structures and man-made rules.Such highly motivated priests in love with the poor and the excluded persons should be made available to the liberation of oppressed groups. Thanks once again.
michael jeyaraj | 27 October 2009

Thank you for an informative and enjoyable article. The church and the world need more bishops/politicians like Fernando Lugo.

I often think that it would be good for the church if bishops were appointed for five year terms renewable for a further five if they were doing well. Then they could return, for example, to their former work as parish priests, or as University lecturers or whatever. Or strike out into new ministries.
Gerry Costigan | 28 October 2009


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