Chavez seeks to pull Paraguay's new leader into his orbit

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 16, 2008 

SAN PEDRO, Paraguay — This dusty farm town, where Fernando Lugo ministered to the poor as its activist, left-leaning bishop, welcomed him back Saturday as Paraguay's unlikely president with hugs, cheers and exhortations that he not fail them.

But for the second day in a row, it was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who stole the show, as part of a determined effort by Chavez to tug Lugo into his political camp.

Lugo acknowledged Chavez's aim on Friday, telling reporters in the capital of Asuncion just after his inauguration that people have warned him not to get too close to Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, who is Chavez's close socialist ally.

Lugo, 57, said he would chart his own path.

"I'm not afraid of anybody," Lugo said, adding that he planned to seek help and ideas from a wide range of countries.

Lugo has also said in recent days that he expects to have good relations with the United States, a statement seconded by U.S. officials.

Lugo's ascension to power is historic. No former priest has been elected president of a Latin American country in living memory, and Lugo breaks the 61-year stranglehold on power in Paraguay by the Colorado Party -- the longest by any current political party in the world.

When Lugo shouted "Yes!" on Friday morning that he would uphold the oath of office, it marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in Paraguay's 197-year history.

A poll published Friday by the ABC Color newspaper showed that an astounding 93 percent of Paraguayans approve of Lugo, up from only 41 percent in April that elected him as president, as the country is convinced that he will change the practices of the discredited Colorados.

Against that backdrop, on Friday and Saturday, Chavez seemed determined to gain Lugo as a new adherent in what he calls "socialism of the 21st century."

Chavez drew reporters and crowds wherever he went, oozing charisma at every stop as he reprised the role previously played by Cuba's Fidel Castro at gatherings of Latin American leaders, until a stomach disorder sidelined Castro two years ago.

Chavez hugged children, embraced everyone he met as if he or she was his long-lost friend and identified Lugo's unexpected victory with changes in the continent that he hopes will bring South America together under his leadership. Chavez sees himself as fulfilling the broken dream of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Venezuelan who fought to free South America from colonial Spain and who is Chavez's inspiration.

On Saturday, Chavez gave Lugo a replica of a gold-encrusted sword made for Bolivar but that Bolivar never used.

Chavez wasted no opportunity in praising the Paraguayan people and their political heroes -- "I feel Paraguayan today!" he shouted early in a 40-minute speech in San Pedro's main square -- and he attacked the United States for its "imperialism."

Chavez also extolled the benefits of Cuban teachers and eye doctors working in Venezuela, saying they have improved the vision of tens of thousands of Venezuelans and ended illiteracy in his country.

"Fidel sends his greetings," Chavez shouted at one point.

Whether Chavez will get Lugo to adopt his leftist causes won't be known until Lugo has governed this agricultural-based country for some time.

But the body language didn't seem promising on Saturday in San Pedro, a town of 12,000 residents in northern Paraguay.

The crowd sitting on white plastic chairs under an 85-degree sun repeatedly applauded Chavez, but Lugo rarely brought his hands together.

The day before in Asuncion, Lugo mostly remained silent as Chavez sat next to him in a former railroad car turned museum piece and spoke animatedly with two leftist intellectuals, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and Leonardo Boff, who was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II for promoting liberation theology.

Jose Ledesma, the new governor of San Pedro state and a close Lugo ally, called the new president a "socialist" but predicted he would follow the softer left line of Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chile's Michelle Bachelet.

Miguel Carter, an American University professor who knew Lugo when he was a bishop, said he thought that because Lugo comes from the church, he will be "more inclined to foster consensus and dialogue" -- qualities that critics say are absent in Chavez, a former army officer.

"If there is anything such as the Lula-Chavez continuum," added Carter, "it seems to me that Lugo will end up straddling both ends, with his own 'pastoral approach' to politics."

Boff, who met Lugo when they both were young priests studying in Rome, predicted that Lugo would remain independent.

"He'll follow his own path," Boff said. "He knows the reality of Paraguay."

Speaking to his former parishioners in San Pedro, where he served as the bishop from 1994-2005, Lugo promised to end a tradition of corruption by the Colorados and vowed to reduce poverty.

Lugo unsheathed the sword from Chavez, held it aloft and said, "Bolivar didn't use it, but we will against corruption and crime."

Lugo also said that he will donate his $72,000 salary to the poor.

"This will be a government for all Paraguayans," he said. "It won't be easy. But Paraguay was and will again be among the great nations."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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