It is the model of the state that matters'

Print edition : June 29, 2012

Paraguay President Fernando Lugo at the Taj Mahal in Agra on May 24. Lugo was on an official visit to India from May 23 to 25.-PTI

Interview with President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay.

Fernando Lugo made history in Latin America when he was elected President of Paraguay in April 2008, ending more than six decades of right-wing authoritarian rule. Lugo is no ordinary politician. He received his initial baptism in politics as a serving Roman Catholic priest working with impoverished peasants in the jungles of Ecuador. He became an adherent of liberation theology as a young priest. Liberation theology interprets Christian ethics from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed. Lugo had risen to the position of a bishop before leaving the Church in December 2006. His aim, he had said at the time, was to change Paraguay's reputation as the country of drug trafficking, corruption and illegality. The Vatican first refused Lugo permission to leave the Church but later granted his wish, albeit reluctantly. Pope Benedict XVI issued an unprecedented waiver. The Vatican, especially under the current pope, is known to be against priests engaging in political activism.

In the general election held in April 2008, Lugo, the flag-bearer of a coalition of opposition parties, won the presidency. The pink tide that was sweeping Latin America had reached Paraguay. Lugo's ascendency to the presidency came in the wake of victories notched up by other left-wing Presidents in the region. Although President Lugo has been identified with the Left, he has taken care to distance himself from more radical leaders in the region, such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Lugo's style of functioning has been closer to that of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva.

Lugo was in India from May 23 to 25 on an official visit, the first ever by a Paraguayan President since diplomatic relations were established 50 years ago. He took time off from his busy schedule to talk to Frontline on a wide array of issues. Excerpts from the interview.

What is the main agenda of your visit to Asia?

I am visiting five countries in Asia. In Latin America, we feel that this is the century of Latin America in Asia in all senses, encompassing the economic, cultural and diplomatic scenarios. We have many things in common, including our stance on climate change and the environment.

How are relations between India and Paraguay?

In the last five years, we have multiplied the volume of trade five times. Paraguay is a small country. We are just six million citizens. It is like a small city of India. Our economy has done well in recent years. A country of six million has produced enough food for 60 million inhabitants of the world. We had an economic growth of 15.3 per cent last year. After Qatar and Singapore, Paraguay is in the third place now. We have created an investment climate in our country.

We feel that Asian and Latin American countries can have a very beneficial commercial relationship. There is a lot of complementarity. Asia and India have developed a lot technologically, while Paraguay and Latin America have a lot to offer in the field of agriculture and the production of food.

Latin America has provided South Asia with a model for regional integration.

In Latin America, there is an intense desire for integration. We have made some big advances, and there have been some problems also. Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, three small countries, joined together in the 1970s. It was helpful, but now because of the energy crisis and other developments, we are having a rethink. In the 1990s, Mercosur [Common Southern Market] came up. This is another attempt at broader integration. Uruguay and Paraguay are part of this grouping. After that, other groupings to enhance integration, like Unasur [Union of South American Nations], having 12 member states, and Celac [Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations], which draws its membership from the RIO Group, have come up.

All countries in Latin America are firm on the goal of integration because there are problems that exist which need regional solutions, especially relating to poverty, energy and the environment. These create problems for our fragile democracies. All these topics are on the agenda of Latin American integration.

There is also another reality. Latin American and Asian countries have some things in common. Latin America and Asia can work together in combating narco-trafficking and cooperate in the field of renewable energy. Cooperation is more important now because the U.S. and rich European countries, which have joined together, are now facing a financial crisis.

Latin America has rejected the Washington Consensus.

It was at a summit meeting in 2005 that Latin America rejected the Washington Consensus. It was a model which was proposed in 1991 by the U.S. Even then Latin American countries had their reservations. Brazil and Paraguay rejected it then itself. True integration should come from below. Big summits with heads of state in attendance do not reflect the actual feelings of the people. The purpose of integration should be to give a meaningful role to our citizens. The unions of the area, especially in the Mercosur area, are involved in decision-making along with the intellectuals, the youth and also women. In Unasur, the focus is on integration in the defence arena. This is not liked by some of our friends in the continent.

What is the future of the Organisation of American States (OAS)?

We had a meeting in Trinidad after President [Barack] Obama came to power. This created a lot of expectations in Latin America, but disenchantment set in soon. At the recent OAS summit in Cartagena, the very fact that the issue of narcoterrorism was put on the agenda was an important development. The very fact that the member states were willing to cooperate on this issue was significant.

In many summits, some issues tend to dominate others. At Cartagena, it was Cuba and the Malvinas. Other topics were also discussed. The question of integration is the main issue for the region. These will help solve the common problems affecting the region.

Is it true that the pink tide is receding in the continent?

At the Ibero-American summit in Paraguay, we came to the conclusion that every state has its own characteristics. There is no one particular model of government that will satisfy all our citizens. I personally don't think that the role of the leader is very important. It is the model of the state that matters.

A shaman andother members of the Chamacoco tribe of the Bahia Negra region in Paraguay at a function in celebration of American Indian Day in Asuncion, the capital, on April 19. Lugo said: Our 12 emblematic social programmes offer both palliative as well as concrete solutions. These include the problems of street children, senior citizens, indigenous people without land, and the women who have been marginalised, unemployment, the problem of the homeless, and health issues.-JORGE SAENZ/AP

You came to power promising to institute wide-ranging land reforms.

What I had talked about was agrarian reforms. Agrarian reforms are not just land reforms. Many people equate agrarian reforms with just land reforms. In the last 20-25 years, 11 million hectares of land has been distributed, but there have not been agrarian reforms. There has to be regularisation of land tenancy. The shanty towns have to be regularised and transformed into colonies. There has to be inclusive rural industrialisation, and its products have to find a market.

These kind of agrarian reforms have taken place to a large extent. We have not, however, been able to recover the land that has been illegally distributed in the country. This does not depend on executive power alone. Judicial powers also come into play. Tenancy issues have remained unresolved for many years. There are two or three claimants for every parcel of land. All of them want the courts to decide the rightful ownership. This is the main problem about the distribution of land in our country.

How has Christian liberation theology influenced your presidency?

I did not have political training. I do not belong to any political party. It is very strange that I have become the President of Paraguay. The theology of liberation is based on existing reality. Therefore, our social policies are based on egalitarianism. Our 12 emblematic social programmes offer both palliative as well as concrete solutions. These include the problems of street children, senior citizens, indigenous people without land and the women who have been marginalised, unemployment, the problem of the homeless, and health issues. We are in the process of finding a solution to all these problems, but they cannot be solved overnight as they have been existing for the last 50 to 60 years. These are structural problems.

Will you be standing for elections again? There has been some speculation about this.

No. The Constitution does not permit it. I am not going to change the Constitution just to seek re-election.

How are relations with your big neighbour Brazil?

Good. For Brazil it is not good to have a poor neighbour. Poverty is a time bomb that can explode at any time. During my presidency, we had good relations with Brazil, especially in the energy sector. In 30 years, we have moved from getting $100 million as compensation from Brazil for the electricity we provide to $300 million today. [Brazil until recently got a lot of its electricity at below market prices from the Itaipu dam on the Parana river between Paraguay and Brazil.]

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