Fernando Lugo life and biography

Fernando Lugo picture, image, poster

Fernando Lugo biography

Date of birth : 1951-05-30
Date of death : -
Birthplace : San Solano, Paraguay
Nationality : Paraguayan
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-07-21
Credited as : Politician, President of Paraguay, World's political leader

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Fernando Lugo, also known as Fernando Armindo Lugo Mendez, born May 30, 1951 in San Solano, Itapúa Department, Paraguay is a Paraguayan political leader and current President of Paraguay.

Paraguayan voters elected Fernando Lugo as president in the spring of 2008, abruptly ending six decades of rule by the country's right-wing Colorado Party. Sometimes called "the Red Bishop" because of his commitment to social justice issues, Lugo is a former Roman Catholic cleric who resigned from the priesthood in order to enter the political arena. "At the end of my five-year term, I want Paraguay to have changed its international image, to be seen as a serious country where laws and the constitution are obeyed and contracts respected," he told a writer for London's Guardian newspaper, Hugh O'Shaughnessy. "We want a fairer society, not one where a tiny group creams off the profits."

Lugo was born in 1951 in San Solano, a village in the Itapúa Department that borders one of Paraguay's two immense South American neighbors, Brazil; Argentina sits on its western flank. Until 1811 the country was part of the Spanish Empire, and a majority of Paraguayans are mestizo, or mixed-heritage, with Spanish or other European ancestry mingled with Paraguay's indigenous Guarani Indians. From 1811 until 1947 the country was in a state of perpetual political turmoil, as various parties and the army vied for control. The conservative Asociación Nacional Republicana--Partido Colorado (National Republican Party--Colorado Party, known in Paraguay by its acronym, ANR), seized control in 1947 and locked the country into a tightly run dictatorship led, after 1954, by General Alfredo Stroessner.

For the next five decades, the Stroessner regime consistently harassed voices of the left, including members of the Liberal Party, the leading opposition group. Human-rights abuses touched nearly every Paraguayan family save for members of the Colorado Party elite. In the Lugo family, Lugo's father was detained on 20 separate occasions; Lugo's uncle Epifanio Méndes Fleitas also spent time in jail; and of Lugo's four brothers three of them were forced to leave the country for their own safety.

Lugo attended a parochial school in Encarnación, the main city in Itapúa, and trained as a teacher when he was in his late teens. When he began teaching, he was assigned to a rural district and was impressed by their ardent Roman Catholicism, despite the fact that the villagers had no priest to serve the community. At the age of 19, Lugo began studies at a seminary run by the Society of the Divine Word, a men's religious order that focuses on missionary work. After completing a course at the Universidad Católica Nuestra Señora in Asunción, Paraguay's capital, he was ordained on August 15, 1977, as a priest of the Society of the Divine Word. His first posting was in to Ecuador, where he spent five years working among the poor. He became interested in liberation theology during this period thanks in part to a well-known Ecuadorian bishop, Leónidas Proaño, who was a vocal critic of the vast economic inequalities in both his country and elsewhere in Latin America. Liberation theology centers around the idea that the Church's focus should be on aiding the world's poorest and most oppressed peoples. Its main proponents have regularly challenged both the Vatican--the seat of power in the Roman Catholic Church--and the secular governments of several South and Central American nations whose policies, the radical priests asserted, were exploitative.

Back in Paraguay, Lugo's activities aroused the suspicion of the Stroessner regime, and he was called to Rome for further study. He studied sociology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and finally returned to Paraguay after the end of the Stroessner era, when some democratic reforms began to take hold. The aging dictator had been forced out in 1989, but the endemic government corruption remained. Civil liberties were gradually restored by the Colorado Party, which was able to stay in power thanks, in part, to one important legacy of the Stroessner era: its successful suppression of political dissidence and the fracturing of the left into various splinter groups.

Lugo was appointed head of the Society of Divine Word's Paraguayan branch before he was elevated to the position of bishop in March of 1994. He was assigned to pastor the Diocese of San Pedro Apostol del Ycuamandiyú, one of Paraguay's poorest areas. Its predominantly Guarani population are mostly cattle farmers or raise crops like yerba maté and soybeans. During his eleven years as their spiritual leader, he took an active role in San Pedro's land reform movement to correct the imbalance of land tenancy, the Paraguayan version of sharecropping. The farmers in San Pedro did not own the land, but worked it for meager wages on behalf of the brasiguayos, or Brazilian-immigrant landlords who are among Paraguay's wealthiest inhabitants; moreover, because the Brazilians are not Paraguayan citizens, they pay a reduced income tax, and their soybean crops are not subject to export tariffs, either. Environmental activists have also targeted the brasiguayos for their clear-cutting of forests in order to convert acreage into farmland in eastern Paraguay.

Lugo became a well-known figure in the San Pedro Department, the province, as a foe of corrupt dealing between business interests and government officials. Two governors were forced to resign and a movement began to draft Lugo into the political arena. In the Roman Catholic Church, members of religious orders are not permitted to hold elected office, and he requested that he be laicized, or released from his obligations as a priest. Vatican officials initially rejected this, but he was given the title of bishop emeritus as a compromise, which permitted him the freedom to become more active in secular organizations. He founded the group Tekojoja, a Guarani word for "life in equality," to work for social justice issues.

Nicanor Duarte Frutos of the Colorado Party was elected president of Paraguay in 2003. His government, like that of his two ANR predecessors, had pledged to end corruption and increase prosperity, but had failed spectacularly on both counts. In 2006, Duarte launched an attempt to modify the 1992 constitution, which forbids presidents from serving two consecutive five-year terms, but this resulted only in fierce public opposition. In the fall of 2007, Lugo joined the Christian Democrats, a small party, which eventually allied with other parties and groups, including the Liberal Party and Tekojoja, to form a coalition slate for the 2008 presidential elections. The coalition was called Alianza Patriótica por el Cambio, or Patriotic Alliance for Change, and known by the acronym APC.

Though Lugo was technically a retired bishop, he remained a Roman Catholic priest, and Paraguay's constitution barred members of religious orders from holding elected office. On the one hand, he attempted to resign from the priesthood, but Pope Benedict XVI would not accept his resignation; on the other hand, President Duarte announced that he would not block Lugo's place on the ballot because of the constitutional prohibition on members of religious orders.

Lugo and the APC ran a campaign with the tagline, "Lugo Has Heart," capitalizing on his reputation and commitment to social justice causes. In a somewhat ironic twist on that slogan, he had to wear a bulletproof vest while campaigning because of death threats. Ahead of the April presidential election, most polls showed him as the frontrunner and likely victor over the Colorado Party's candidate, Blanca Ovelar de Duarte, a former education minister who was considered Duarte's handpicked successor. The right-wing party sacrificed much of its traditional support base with Ovelar, however, because a well-known Colorado Party figure, Luis Castiglioni, had hoped to be the candidate but lost in party primaries and then publicly accused Colorado Party leadership of engaging in vote fraud. There was also a third candidate in the race, a retired army general Lino Oviedo of the Unión Nacional de Ciudadanos Éticos (National Union of Ethical Citizens).

In the final weeks of the 2008 presidential balloting, Lugo was the target of a smear campaign path carried out by the Colorado Party, which called him a failed priest--no small insult in a nation where 90 percent of the population identifies themselves as Roman Catholic--and attempted to link him to Colombian drug trafficking rings and renegade Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In marked contrast to his two opponents, Lugo carried out a campaign in which he walked barefoot with the poor in rural areas--a centuries-old symbol of solidarity with the poor for Catholics--and promised land reform as well as a renegotiation of a contract with Brazil over the massive Itaipú hydroelectric dam, which straddles the border of Paraguay and Brazil. "The Itaipú dam treaty signed in 1973 between two military governments (two illegitimate governments, as Paraguayans often point out) obliges Paraguay to sell any unused electricity to Brazil rather than to third parties," explained Peter Lambert in the NACLA Report on the Americas. "Since prices for sales to Brazil are set at levels vastly below market rates, Paraguay effectively subsidizes about 20 percent of Brazilian domestic energy use, a subsidy reckoned to be worth about $3 billion per year."

Paraguayan voters turned out in record numbers on April 20, 2008, and Lugo and his running mate, Federico Franco of the center-right Authentic Radical Liberal Party, won with 41 percent of the vote. Ovelar received 31 percent, and Oviedo trailed in third place with 22 percent. It was the first election the Colorado Party had lost in 61 years, and it marked the end of what had been the world's longest-ruling political party still in power. The question of his status as a priest, in light of his obligation to remain apolitical and the Paraguayan constitution, was solved on June 30, 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI formally laicized him. Because he was single, he invited his sister Mercedes Lugo de Maidana to fulfill some of the duties of First Lady.

There were fears that a manufactured crisis might forestall Lugo's inauguration on August 15, especially with a spike in the number of land seizures in rural areas that Lugo's supporters asserted were the work of right-wing political groups, but Duarte and the Colorado Party stepped aside on inauguration day, which was another first in Paraguay's 197-year political history as one party peacefully handed over power to its opposition. "Today marks the end of the elitist and secretive Paraguay, famous for its corruption," he told the crowd in Asunción assembled for his inauguration speech, according to a report filed by New York Times correspondent Alexei Barrionuevo.

During his first year in office, Lugo was named in a paternity suit filed by a woman named Viviana Carrillo, who initially claimed her relationship with Lugo began when she was 16 years old, but she later revised that to the age of 23. Even at the later date, the relationship apparently began when he was still a Roman Catholic priest and bound by church law to keep the vow of celibacy he had taken. Carrillo was the mother of a son, Guillermo, and a few days later Lugo admitted that he was the two-year-old's father. That same April, two other women came forward and also claimed that the former priest was the father of their children. Lugo's approval ratings plummeted sharply in just one week, and those who rallied to his side accused his political opponents of engineering the paternity scandals in an attempt to destabilize his government. Political analysts familiar with South American culture noted that the admission of this particular sin was unlikely to permanently damage his career or mandate. "It was not my intention to offend anyone," he said at the end of the week before a battery of journalists at a special press conference, according to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News report by Gary Duffy. "I don't hesitate to ask for forgiveness in recognizing that I failed the church, the country, the citizens, those who put their trust in me."


PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, May 30, 1951, in San Solano, Itapúa Department, Paraguay; son of Guillermo and Maximina; children: Guillermo Armindo Lugo Carrillo. Education: Attended the Universidad Católica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, mid-1970s; attended Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome), after 1983. Addresses: Office--c/o Embassy of Paraguay, 2400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington DC 20008.

CAREER

School teacher, late 1960s; ordained a Roman Catholic priest of the order Society of the Divine Word, August 15, 1977; missionary in Ecuador, 1977-82; head of the Society of the Divine Word order in Paraguay, early 1990s; Bishop of San Pedro Apostol del Ycuamandiyú, Paraguay, 1994-2005; founded Tekojoja, c. 2006; elected president of Paraguay, April 20, 2008; formally laicized by Pope Benedict XVI, June 30, 2008.

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