Fernando Lugo Méndez (1951-) is a former Catholic Bishop and the former President of Paraguay. His election to the office of president was notable because it marked the end of the time of rule of the Colorado Party, which came into power in 1947.
Lugo grew up poor in the city of Encarnación, but managed to get an education, including a degree as a primary school teacher. Within a couple of years, he felt a calling to the priesthood and began studying in the seminary. He took his vows in 1975 and went to Universidad Católica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, where he graduated with a degree in Religious Sciences. He spent the next five years working as a missionary in a remote part of Ecuador, where he first came into contact with Liberation Theology, a branch of Christian thought which holds that it is the mission of the church to fight poverty and oppression.
After a four-year trip to Rome for more study, Lugo returned to Paraguay. The promising young priest rose quickly in the ranks and was ordained Bishop of the impoverished San Pedro diocese in 1994. He used his position to champion Paraguay’s poor, fighting for a just and fair society. This put him at odds with the crooked rule of the Colorado Party and the entrenched corruption it represented. The charismatic Lugo soon attracted a devoted following.
Move Into Politics:
Lugo began getting more and more involved in politics. He organized the Resistencia Ciudadana (Civilian Resistance), an anti-Colorado union of political parties and social organizations. In 2006 he decided to go into politics full-time and resigned from his seat as Bishop and the Church. Although the resignation was not accepted and he was suspended by the Pope, he continued to be politically active. In November of 2006 more than 100,000 Paraguayans signed petitions begging him to run in the 2008 elections. When he announced his candidacy, he was supported by dozens of political parties and organizations.
In the years of Colorado Party rule, contacts within the party were much more important than any skills for landing government jobs. Lugo campaigned on change, vowing to fight this insidious corruption that has plagued this tiny nation in one form or another since independence. He also pledged to institute land reform, improve education and develop social programs aimed at helping the poorest Paraguayans. His past as a bishop helped cement his image as an honest, principled reformer.
The 2008 Election:
Lugo’s opponent in the 2008 election was Blanca Ovelar, the Colorado Party nominee who would have been Paraguay’s first woman president if elected. The campaign turned nasty, with Lugo being compared to Hugo Chavez and allegedly linked to terrorists and kidnapping gangs. Many outside observers doubted that Lugo, who had never held political office, would be able to defeat the entrenched Colorado Party. On April 20, 2008, however, he did just that, winning by ten percentage points in a landslide.
Administration and Ouster:
Lugo took office on August 15, 2008. He was a leftist leader like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia, yet maintained friendly relations with Washington. In this, he was much more like Brazil’s Liuz Inácio Lula da Silva than Morales or Chavez.
His first 100 days in office were a mixed bag of successes and frustrations. Food and water service and health care were made more available to some of the poorest Paraguayans. He began to fight corruption, but faced stiff opposition from the Colorado-controlled legislature and judiciary. Land reform also stalled, due to the wealth and power of large landowners. Many of the richest landowners are Brazilian, and they asked the government of Brazil to step in and help negotiate when the Paraguayan government threatened to nationalize their lands. The delay in reform led many of Lugo’s supporters to participate in street demonstrations. Crime was also up significantly.
In June of 2012, Lugo was impeached by a Congressional vote of 39-4. His popularity, once sky-high, had been waning, in part due to his being forced to admit that he fathered (at least) two children on different mothers while still a bishop. A land dispute that left 17 dead proved to be the opening his opponents needed and he was impeached on June 22, 2012.
Lugo's leftist allies, such as Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, quickly denounced the bloodless coup, but Lugo himself reluctantly accepted the verdict, at least at first. He compared his situation to that of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. There are similarities between the two situations, although the Paraguayan Congress apparently followed legal protocol: his ouster was swift but apparently legal.
Lugo's low popularity will probably not allow him to reclaim his position, although he may be a factor in future elections and politics.