Saturday, August 16, 2008

PARAGUAY: "Today a New Country Is Born," Says New President

By David Vargas ASUNCION Former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo was sworn in Friday as president of Paraguay in a ceremony charged with emotion that broke with protocol, promising to rebuild this impoverished landlocked South American nation that was ruled by the rightwing Colorado Party for 61 years. "We are putting an end to the elitist and secretive Paraguay, notorious for its corruption. Today a new country is born, where the authorities will be relentless with those who steal from the people," said a visibly moved Lugo, addressing a crowd of around 20,000 people in the square in front of Congress, where he took his oath of office. Lugo succeeded President Nicanor Duarte of the National Republican Association, better known as the Colorado Party, which has been in power for six decades, including the brutal 35-year dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner, that ended in 1989. Instead of a suit and tie, in the ceremony the new president wore a simple white shirt made of "ao po’i", the Guaraní name for a traditional Paraguayan cotton fabric, and his trademark Franciscan sandals, underscoring the image of austerity that he has said would characterise his five-year term. A survey published Friday by the First Análisis y Estudios polling firm found that Lugo is beginning his term with a 93 percent popularity rating -- which was reflected Friday in the excitement of the crowd in front of Congress. "We have been waiting and hoping for change, broad-ranging change, for so long; we need more justice," a student, Marcos Baroja, told IPS. "I would like education to be available for all levels of society, especially the poor and dispossessed," said Juan Notario, who teaches in a school in the northern province of San Pedro, one of the country’s poorest, where Lugo’s work for over a decade earned him the nickname "bishop of the poor". Lugo is a proponent of liberation theology, a current in the Catholic Church that emerged in the 1960s in Latin America, based on a "preferential option for the poor" and a commitment to fighting social injustice. Analysts have also expressed optimism. Roberto Paredes, author of the book "Adónde Va Paraguay" (Where Is Paraguay Headed), told IPS that Lugo has outlined the major historical challenges faced by the country: "democratising national politics, developing local industry, and putting an end to the structurally unfair agricultural system." He also said the president has so far demonstrated an ability to bring together a wide range of sectors, besides his "immense capacity to listen," which contributed to weaving together the diverse coalition -- the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), made up of 10 political parties and around 20 social movements -- that brought him to power. In his speech, the 57-year-old ex-bishop announced that he would help the country’s indigenous people recover their ancestral territory. "From now on, these lands will not only be sacred in their culture, but also in terms of enforcement of the law. No white person who buys or sells indigenous lands, who humiliates or persecutes indigenous people, will enjoy the impunity of the past. Crimes against indigenous people will no longer go unpunished," he said. According to the last census, there are 87,000 indigenous people in Paraguay, making up 1.6 percent of the population of six million. (By contrast, 95 percent of Paraguayans are of mixed-race -- predominantly Spanish and Guaraní -- descent). And while 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to official figures, native communities are the poorest of the poor. Lugo also reaffirmed his campaign pledge to put top priority on fighting poverty. He said he would "personally" take a hand in improving the lot of the army of street children cleaning windshields for a few coins or hawking candy on the streets of the capital. But with regard to solving this problem, he said "It would not be prudent or responsible to announce a timeframe. I don't know how long it will take to provide a response to this situation, and I don't know if we will be able to definitively do away with the monster of poverty, but I want you to know that the children will be the personal concern of this president." He also reiterated a promise made on Thursday before a crowd comprised of social organisations, indigenous people and peasant farmers, to renounce his 4,000 dollar monthly salary, with which he will create a social fund. He called on other politicians to join him in that endeavour. The change that is being ushered in "is not only electoral, but is a cultural wager as well, perhaps the most far-reaching in Paraguayan history," said the new president. Lugo, who recently received unprecedented permission from Pope Benedict XVI to resign as bishop, thanked the 11 presidents and numerous international delegations who attended the inauguration ceremony. "We welcome and support the diverse (regional) integration efforts already underway," he said, advocating "the search for concrete solutions to our common problems." The new government’s top priorities will include the fight against corruption, and economic recovery based on social equality. Relations with the rest of the region are another crucial aspect for the incoming government. Lugo has announced that he will renegotiate what he calls the "unfair" terms of the treaties governing the Itaipú hydroelectric plant, which is jointly managed by Paraguay and Brazil, and the Yacyretá dam, which is owned by Paraguay and Argentina. He also referred to immigration, a touchy question in Paraguay, which in the last few years has seen growing numbers of people heading to destinations like Argentina and Spain in search of a better life. He specifically addressed Argentine President Cristina Fernández, thanking her for the hospitality that her country has extended to Paraguayan immigrants, who are estimated to number more than one million. In addition, he referred to the more recent flow of migrants to Spain, where an estimated 150,000 Paraguayans, most of them undocumented immigrants, are now living. "We commit ourselves to dialogue with the aim of ensuring that migrants continue to be seen as brothers and sisters and are treated in a humanitarian and hospitable way," he said, alluding to the new European Union immigration policy that allows lengthy detention of undocumented migrants prior to deportation. Like the new Paraguayan administration, most of the governments in Latin America today are left-leaning. After attending the swearing-in ceremony, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez commented that his government is committed to working with the new Paraguayan administration against the "asymmetries" that mark trade relations among the members of the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc, made up of Argentina and Brazil along with the much smaller Paraguay and Uruguay. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet told journalists in Asunción that she and Lugo would "design an agenda" to bolster cooperation between the two countries. "We share the Latin American dream of seeing our countries develop in democracy, peace and prosperity, but for every one of its children, with the fight against injustice at the centre of our public policies," said the Chilean president. Argentina’s leader also committed herself to strengthening relations between her country and Paraguay. "If something characterises our country it is the profound regional integration that we are engaged in," said Fernández, while Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed his "respect" and "admiration" for the Paraguayan people. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, meanwhile, announced that a series of agreements would be signed with the Lugo administration, to increase his country’s oil exports to Paraguay.

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