My Argentinean friends and I had driven eighteen hours straight from Buenos Aires trying to get to Paraguay in time for the inauguration of Fernando Lugo into the presidency. We weren’t alone; for several days people had been arriving from all over the continent to witness the historic event of another South American left-leaning leader, coming from outside the one or two-party political structure, breaking that ossified structure to win the executive office. This happened in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez in 1998, and has since been repeated in Uruguay with Tabaré Vázquez and the Frente Amplio; in Bolivia with Evo Morales and MAS; in Ecuador with Rafael Correa and Alianza País, to name only a few of the more exact, parallel examples, and now with Fr. Fernando Lugo and Alianza Patriotica por el Cambio. Nevertheless, Lugo stands out from these other third party leftist leaders: he is also a priest in the tradition of the Theology of Liberation.
Fernando Lugo became a priest in 1977 and the following year went off to Ecuador where he worked among the indigenous people in the province of Bolívar under the renowned liberation theologian, Bishop Leonidas Proaño Villalba. Lugo returned to his native Paraguay in 1982 and eventually became bishop of San Pedro, the poorest department of Paraguay. He received special permission to leave that post as bishop in order to run for the presidency, which he won on April 20th of this year.
I got my first inkling of what Lugo’s election would mean for the people of Paraguay when I arrived at the border on the morning of the inauguration. My friends and I ended up separating at the border so I crossed alone. I handed my passport to the woman behind the large plate glass and she opened it and thumbed through it, stopping at the last page before she handed it back.
“Where’s your visa?” she asked.
“Visa?”I responded. “I thought you got a visa at the border.”
She shook her head. “No. Your government requires you to get a visa in advance. You have to go back to the Paraguayan Consulate to get a visa.”
Then she noticed my t-shirt. I was wearing a t-shirt with a drawing by my friend, Diego Rios, of the Cuban patriot and martyr, Jose Martí.
“Why do you want to go to Paraguay?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I had planned to go to the inauguration of President Lugo,” I responded, my voice dropping as I spoke.
By now two other officials had gathered around her window, a young man who was seated at the desk beside her and who now leaned over to her window, and another, taller woman, entering from the other office, who appeared to be their superior. The three of them exchanged a few words and then the taller woman waved me to the door and told me to come into the office.
“Jose Martí,” she said as I walked in. “What do you think of him?”
I told her I admired him for his struggle for Cuban independence and that I hoped one day all of Latin America would be free and united. And that was why I thought it was so important to be present for the inauguration of President Lugo. She smiled, nodded approvingly and invited me into the office.
In the office the three of them began discussing my situation.
“He needs a visa,” the first woman said.
“Yes,” said the taller woman,” but we can’t give him one here.”
“Well, we could just let him in,” the young man said.
The taller woman dismissed the idea with the wave of her hand. “No. He could get in trouble when he arrived. And he’d certainly get in trouble when he left Paraguay.”
It went on like this for a moment until the woman at the desk suggested giving me a transit visa. The tall woman nodded and they set to work, looking through the stamps until they found the right one.
While they processed me, I watched Lugo on television which was on in the office, the image moving about on the screen from a distracted camera person, shooting from too great a distance from the stage where Lugo was speaking.
The taller woman noticed I was watching and she pointed at Lugo, his image dancing back and forth as the camera tried to find his focus.
“We love our president,” she said, and then she handed me my passport.
I took a cab the twenty or so miles into Asunción. I asked the driver what he thought of the new president. “Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we? But he has promised to give his presidential salary to the poor. That’s a first for this country. Maybe they’ll rob less than all the others.” He shrugged and turned back to focus on his driving.
We couldn’t get near the Plaza de Independencia so I got out seven or eight blocks away and walked to the plaza, passing blocks and blocks of soldiers filling the outlying streets. It looked more like a military coup than an inauguration.
I found myself walking beside a woman and her daughter who were also unfamiliar with Asunción and who had come in just for the celebrations. We were both lost so we stopped to ask a soldier. Her subservient posture, and the slight bow she made as she asked directions to the Plaza de Independencia, revealed that Paraguayans still haven’t fully recovered from their fear of the police and military who terrorized the country under the Stroessner dictatorship and over sixty years of one-party rule.
“Soldiers will never again be sent out to kill campesinos,” Lugo promised, but the uniformed men who passed through the crowds nevertheless drew quiet, suspicious looks. Their olive green uniforms still in some sense symbolized the forty-year-long Stroessner dictatorship.
By the time we arrived in the Plaza the inauguration had ended and a few minutes later the new President rode by, followed by guards on horseback.
Lugo had broken all protocol by dressing in sandals and a typical Paraguayan shirt, an aopo’i, and he began his speech in Guarani, the indigenous language spoken by over 95% of the people of Paraguay.
The leaders of the “Pink Tide” arrived in force, most notably Presidents Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Michelle Bachelet, Tabaré Vázquez, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In addition, two elders of Liberation Theology, Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff appeared, along with Fr. Ernesto Cardenal. Eduardo Galeano also made an appearance.
But more importantly, the plaza was full of tens of thousands of the people who had brought Fernando Lugo to power: the indigenous and campesinos from distant parts of the country as well as the slum dwellers who had ventured into the Plaza from their shacks made of cardboard, wood from pallets and roofed with corrugated fiberglass or sheetmetal held down by stones, old boards, rusting bicycle frames. These structures line dirt roads that twist down toward Rio Paraguana and house a large number of the quarter or so Paraguayans who live on something like one US dollar per day.
In the shade of the trees in the plaza people sat, sharing their maté tea, talking and laughing. I’d missed the elation of Lugo’s speech, but the crowd was still wearing smiles everywhere and people were posing for pictures they could carry away to remember the historic moment of transition when the Colorado Party fell from power after 61 years of rule.
Nevertheless, the sense of hope was anything but drunken or delirious. The people I met and with whom I spoke mentioned that they were indeed optimistic, but also cautious in their optimism, much like the taxi driver who had delivered me as close as he could to the plaza. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see changes here,” a young woman told me,”but we’ll have to see, won’t we?”
The crowd was composed of a broad mix of people from tribal indigenous to mestizo; well-heeled urbanites and campesinos in traditional sandals; businessmen in suits and street vendors in rags; young kids with piercings and tatoos and elders walking with the aid of their middle-aged children. Lugo’s support clearly crosses all lines drawn across Paraguayan society and he seems to have inspired a cautious optimism even among members of the Colorado Party.
I joined the crowd leaving the Plaza and by chance I ended up in a demonstration led by, and almost wholly composed of, members of the P-MAS Socialist Party (Movement toward Socialism Party). I was on my way to find a hotel at the time, so I was glad for the company. The young people who form the core of the P-MAS are among the most enthusiastic of Lugo’s supporters. Their party was founded two years ago to promote the Socialism of the 21st Century and it has grown dramatically, especially among the youth. Although they won no seats in the parliament (which the party attributed to fraud), several members won relatively high posts in the new government, including Camilo Soares, who was named Minister of National Emergencies, and two other members named as vice-ministers of culture and of youth.
That night I went to the free concert in front of the National Palace. The high point was the arrival of Chavez and Lugo, who took seats in the audience and eventually took the stage, not with speeches, but with poetry recitals and songs.
Chavez, of course, went first, reciting a long poem to Bolivar, “Por aquí pasa,” by Venezuelan Alberto Torrealba. Chavez was accompanied by the quintet of Venezuelan singer and member of parliament, Cristóbal Jiménez. Later, Chavez returned with President Lugo to sing a reggae version of Mercedes Sosa’s song, “Todo Cambia,” arranged by Lugo’s head of Security, Marcial Congo, a long-haired, bearded man who looked to be pushing sixty. The group accompanying them was led by rock musician Rolando Chaparro who had begun his set with a soulful rock guitar version of Paraguay’s National Anthem,
I started leaving after the set with Lugo and Chavez, thinking that the event had reached its high point, when I ran into Elena, AN older woman from P-MAS who I’d met earlier in the day.
I asked her about the party and she confessed that she was involved because her daughter was a member. I admitted to being surprised that any party claiming to be “socialist” could find members at this juncture in history, so soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turn of China toward capitalism.
“We’ve organized on issues that are relevant to people, especially the poor people of Paraguay, who are the majority. That is, Paraguay is a poor country. I mean it’s rich in the sense that you can drop a seed anywhere and it will grow, but the people here are very poor,” she explained.
Angel, the white haired Uruguayan who runs the hotel where I was staying, had put it this way: “Here in Paraguay there are only two classes of people: Those with shoes, and those without. That’s it. There’s no middle class. And the poor are the poorest in the world.”
Elena elaborated on the situation of the country. “Of six million Paraguayans, a million and a half live outside the country, working in Argentina or Spain or elsewhere. The Colorado Party (which governed Paraguay for over sixty years) is a genocidal party because under their rule ten children per day died as a result of preventable illnesses. We have 45,000 children suffering from malnutrition. They’re malnourished from the womb on so that they aren’t able to develop intellectually. [The poor] live on a dollar [4,000 guaranís] a day. If milk costs $.75 [3,000 guaranís], how can they live on that? How are they supposed to provide milk for their children? Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer. You go to their neighborhoods and it looks like something out of Hollywood. They have three or four cars and trucks.
“That’s why we formed an alliance, “Patriotic Alliance for Change” [Alianza Patriotica por el Cambio] to get Lugo elected, and within that alliance is the Party of the Movement to Socialism, P-MAS.”
“I’m the mother of one of the founders of that party. The parents and grandparents of the youth who founded this party are involved because this is going to be a hard struggle. Very difficult, indeed. Because the struggle against capital isn’t easy. But we have to fight so that everyone is able to live well and eat well every day. ”
“What we want is work and dignity for the people of Paraguay. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
“And so today we’re celebrating. This is a celebration of the people of Paraguay because we won, not with guns, but with votes, a battle against a party of genocide.”
Elena continued. “I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine is in the hospital today with her malnourished child. It’s a hospital with everything you could ask for. But the baby is allergic to wheat and requires a special kind of milk. The milk costs 80,000 guaranís ($20) a liter. Where is she going to get that kind of money? We’re hoping that tomorrow President Lugo is going to do what he really has to do…”
“We’re all going to be with him in this struggle because we don’t want any more of this suffering.”
I ask Elena how it was that they managed to found a socialist party just two years ago, nearly fifteen years after the collapse of the USSR and the “end of history.” She said “it was the young people [who founded the party]. All very young people. And they believe in socialism. We’re big and we’re growing. There are 6,000 militants in Asunción, but we’re a national presence and have chapters all over the country.”
As I ask again how the party was founded, she referred to the “villas miserias” (lit. “miserable villages”). “Look at the houses. They’re made out of cardboard and things rescued from the garbage. That’s why there’s so much sickness like dengue, borne from the dirty water in the marginal neighborhoods. And you know, for them, dengue [fever] is deadly. They die from dengue. And they die from tuberculosis because tuberculosis is a disease from poverty, you know. They’re undernourished and susceptible to such diseases which kill them. And so we’re working against all this and we want to make Paraguay an example [to the world].”
The party, Elena explains, started organizing around school bus tickets because the poor couldn’t afford transport to school. They’ve since been organizing for university bus tickets, as well as for community kitchens and cultural events in the poor neighborhoods.
“Each neighborhood has a nucleus of the party, but we organize in popular assemblies around the needs that the local people have. That’s how we hope to build the socialism of the 21st century.”
Earlier in the day, Fernando Lugo summed up the sentiment of Elena and all those who had supported him to become president. “I refuse to live in a country where some can’t sleep because of fear and others can’t sleep because they’re hungry.”
Two of Lugo’s economic advisors are Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian, and Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist. While Boff has stressed the need for small family and community-based agriculture to provide local sustanance and a move away from the export model of agriculture, Stiglitz has suggested an intensification of export agriculture with a focus on organic production (currently, Paraguay leads the world in the export of organic sugar), tropical fruits and taxation of those exports to fund “social investments” like education and healthcare. It’s likely that Lugo will take this apparently contradictory advice and implement both models to guarantee Paraguay’s food security as well as bring tax money into the treasury to pay for much needed social programs.
Policies like these will be popular and deepen the nation’s trust in their president who has come to power with the great good will of his people. In order to retain that trust and good will, Lugo will have to bring the project of the kingdom of God down to earth with practical proposals that will activate the enormous mass of people, still terrified of the military and suffering from all the ill effects of hunger and neglect.
As one local writer put it, “The party is over and it’s time to get to work. Today hope has won. May it continue for a long time to come.”