SAN PEDRO, Paraguay — The commander had a simple message: Disperse immediately or the riot police would scatter everyone with water cannons, tear gas and truncheons. The man who was leading 10,000 protesters and blocking the dirt roadway didn't flinch, however.
"You can do what you want, but you'll have to come through me first," said Fernando Lugo, the local Roman Catholic bishop and the organizer of the unprecedented roadblock, meant to pressure authorities into building a badly needed highway linking rural San Pedro in central Paraguay to Asuncion, the capital.
The commander left to call his bosses in Asuncion, and the police withdrew a short time later. Two days after that, Paraguay's Congress, meeting in an extraordinary session, approved the money to build the highway.
This 2001 episode served as a watershed event for Lugo, the most notable of a series of triumphs on behalf of the poor in San Pedro that catapulted him to an even bigger victory last April, his election to the presidency of Paraguay. Lugo will be inaugurated Friday in Asuncion.
His election was farfetched: No priest had been elected president of a Latin American country in living memory, much less one who hewed to the liberation theology practice of agitating on behalf of the oppressed.
Lugo's election is historic for another reason: He defeated the Colorado Party, which had governed Paraguay since 1947, when Harry Truman was president of the United States. No political party holding power had governed longer anywhere in the world.
"I don't think he even thought he'd become president, much less us," said the Rev. Celso Mena, who served with Lugo in San Pedro. "It was a miracle to defeat the system."
The system was built by Alfredo Stroessner, a general who engineered a coup in 1954 and governed Paraguay for 35 years by brutally repressing dissidents, favoring supporters with bribes and casting himself as a bulwark against communism.
One of Stroessner's generals overthrew him in 1989 and called for elections, but not much seemed to change. Colorado Party candidates won the first presidential election and all those that followed by bullying opponents and rewarding supporters with government contracts and jobs.
Lugo, the quintessential political interloper, is still a question mark to many inside and outside of Paraguay.
The residents of San Pedro know him best. They describe him as a pragmatic socialist who'll chart his own path for Paraguay.
They saw him mediate conflicts between those with land and those without. They followed him as he led demonstrations that forced two corrupt governors to resign, and they worshiped with him in the red-tiled church with white and yellow columns built in 1854 on the main square.
Even today, San Pedro is a backwater. Most of its streets are dirt. Horse-drawn carts are nearly as numerous as cars. Drivers must brake for chickens and pigs that wander into the middle of the street.
The church hierarchy assigned Lugo here in 1994. He immediately attracted notice as the new bishop in a diocese of 300,000 people. The Catholic Church was the only institution in Paraguay that had widespread respect.
But Lugo stood out even more than expected by visiting far-flung settlements without water and power in his dark green Nissan pickup.
His message: He'd help them, but they needed to organize themselves to press authorities to improve their lives.
Symbolic moves by Lugo also gained him trust, as when he switched the comfortable bed of his predecessor for a single bed barely big enough for his 6-foot-2-inch frame.
Pascual Sanchez, San Pedro's mayor, befriended Lugo.
"He was a bishop completely open to the needs of peasants," said Sanchez, who has a statue of the Virgin Mary on his back patio that Lugo gave him. Sanchez showed off the cramped bedroom where Lugo recently spent the night. "The presidential suite," Sanchez jokingly called it.
Locals still remember that Lugo moved his truck in 2000 to block a potential exit route by a corrupt governor who was under siege by demonstrators demanding his ouster.
They also recall how Lugo organized the massive march for the long-sought highway. For years, rains had turned the existing dirt road into impassable muck. A week could pass before farm products and buses could pass.
"San Pedro was the only provincial capital in the country that didn't have a paved highway to Asuncion," said Florencio Ruiz, who helped organize the blockade. "Important meetings were held elsewhere for fear of people getting trapped in San Pedro. We've had almost no industry in San Pedro because of the poor access."
Now, as president, Lugo will inaugurate the new highway at the end of this month.
His battles ruffled feathers among entrenched interests in San Pedro and Asuncion. Opponents called him a communist. He received death threats. Under pressure from the church, he resigned as a bishop in 2005 and moved to Asuncion the following year.
He'd already begun to dream of a bigger platform, telling Jose Ledesma, a lay church official and political ally in San Pedro, that he couldn't do enough within the church alone and he was thinking of running for president.
At a planning meeting in January 2006, his advisers concluded that the unknown Lugo should begin laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2013.
But in March 2006 in Asuncion, Lugo gave a rousing speech before 40,000 opponents of the Colorados that suddenly made him a viable candidate for the 2008 election.
Lugo, 57, plans to take the oath of office Friday without a necktie but with his trademark Franciscan sandals. It'll be the first time in Paraguay's 197-year history that the ruling party willingly cedes power to the elected opposition.
Lugo also will hold an unofficial inauguration Saturday in San Pedro. Scheduled to join him are Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and perhaps Ecuador's Rafael Correa.
In advance, workers were raking leaves and picking up trash in San Pedro's main square in front of the church. Lugo will officiate at a Mass there Saturday.
Mena, who inherited Lugo's green truck, contemplated for a moment what he'd call the former bishop now.
"I used to call him Fernando, but I guess now I'll call him 'Mr. President,' " he said.
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