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PARAGUAY
Former bishop eyes presidency
Gustavo Torres
4/4/2007
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Catholic Church seeks to impede candidacy of former religious leader.

Some 15,000 people marched in front of the congressional building in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, March 29 in support of former Bishop Fernando Lugo Méndez, who has been edging closer to making his 2008 presidential candidacy official.

Marching under the slogan “United for Change,” Lugo called the protest to commemorate his first massive protest against the government of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos and the five Supreme Court justices — all members of the conservative Colorado Party — for allowing the leader to sidestep the Constitution to become party president while leading the country.

Lugo, a 55-year-old former San Pedro bishop, resigned from priesthood late last year to lead the National Coalition opposition movement, which was created last August in an effort to beat the Colorado Party “dynasty” that has ruled the country for the last 60 years.

In a display of his ability to attract large numbers of people, with the support of most union members and leftist groups, as well as followers of former Gen. Lino Oviedo who has been in prison since 2004 for a failed 1996 coup, and a group of conservative Colorado and Liberal Party members who support his candidacy, Lugo reiterated his demand for the five Supreme Court justices to step down. “That is the impunity that must stop,” he said.

Lugo said the citizens’ march should not be seen as a campaign event but simply a meeting “that became “a sovereign people’s protest in demand of justice in the country.” He told participants that they can create a “change in the short term.”

The former bishop appears optimistic that Paraguay is closing in on “new times,” but he warned that “we have to be aware to guarantee that the forces of chaos do not again sabotage the awakening.”

Judicial corruption
Although he did not gather the same 40,000-strong crowd that participated in last year’s march, Lugo was pleased with the results and called it “a free manifestation.” He again criticized the Paraguayan judiciary calling it “fast and cheap for the wealthy or those who have friends in power.”

He also said that the lack of judicial security is causing foreign investors to run from the landlocked country, and criticized the government’s role in causing a massive emigration of Paraguayans.

Lugo said the democratic process in Paraguay is based on ruling party and opposition policies that “demonstrate an absolute lack of prudence and responsibility to look for solutions.”

The Paraguayan Episcopal Conference has called the former bishop in a “state of contempt.” In January, the Vatican rejected Lugo’s request to return to secular life so he could seek the presidency.

“Mons. Lugo is in a state of contempt, exposing himself to the punishment of excommunication. He does not have the permission of the Vatican to go into politics, so he is leaving Catholicism for poor choices,” said president of the Conference, Mons. Ignacio Gogorza, adding that Lugo cannot leave the cloth simply by resigning. “His life devoted to religion is for one’s entire life.”

“I’ve taken the necessary steps so that the Constitution allows me to become a candidate,” said Lugo. “I think that the Vatican’s suspension will not have an impact on whether the constitution allows me to run or not,” the ex bishop said after he was informed of the penalty for his decision.

Church’s rejection
The Vatican’s ruling generated legal and political debate. Lugo’s supporters said it will have no effect, while others say that the Church’s decision makes the former bishop ineligible as a candidate.

Lugo’s legal advisors maintain that the Vatican’s failure to accept his resignation has no legal validity in Paraguay, but since the Supreme Court and electoral tribunal are controlled by conservative Colorado Party members, his candidacy may very well be rejected.

“The government is going to try to use the Church’s arguments to take him out of the running, but Paraguay is a secular state and the constitution ... is the final authority,” said lawmaker Rafael Filizzola Serra, a Lugo supporter and expert in constitutional law.

Lugo, an advocate of Liberation Theology, became an important figure for his social work in the San Pedro department. He led campesino protests and his participation was also fundamental to negotiations between rural movements and the government in times of land conflicts.

In a mid-February poll by the COIN firm published in the Ultima Hora newspaper, Lugo led the pack with more than 37 percent voter intent, followed by Oviedo, with more than 16 percent, and current President Duarte Frutos, with just under 15 percent. The constitution must be modified for Duarte Frutos to run for another term.

 


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