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Latin America - Paraguay president may need "a little help from ’upstairs’ to govern" says U.S

Natalia Viana, 19 de dezembro de 2010, 15.00 GMT

Paraguay president Fernando Lugo, a center-left politician who was elected to office in April 2008, was seen as a potential ally to the U.S. by the U.S. embassy in Asuncion, so long as he had "more than just a little help from ’upstairs’ to govern as president" which Lugo was apparently willing to accept.

"(S)o far, his signals to the United States Embassy have been clear — he is grateful for our offers of assistance and wants a close relationship," wrote U.S. ambassador James Cason to Washington on June 2, 2008, adding: "If you can’t believe a priest, who can you believe?" (See cable here)

From 1954 to 1989, Paraguay was run by Alfredo Stroessner, a right-wing dictator whose regime is also blamed for torture, kidnappings and corruption. Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, became president of the small land-locked country of 6.3 million people after promising to give land to the landless and end entrenched corruption, defeating the Colorado party which had ruled for six decades.

Pink Tide Worries

In 2005, when Tabaré Vázquez was elected leader of Uruguay, the sixth left-wing leader to be elected in the region, Larry Rohter, a New York Times reporter coined a term that would become popular among Latin American watchers. He referred to "not so much a red tide...as a pink one."

Indeed the BBC estimated that three out of four citizens of Latin America lived in countries ruled by "left-leaning presidents" elected during the preceding six years, in a clean break with what was known at the outset of the 1990s as the ’Washington consensus’, the mixture of open markets and privatisation pushed by the United States".

A 2006 press release from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization summed up the worries in Washington, which they said "rumbles with suppressed outrage over Latin America’s latest professions of its sovereignty – Bolivia’s nationalization of its oil and natural gas reserves, and Ecuador and Venezuela’s voiding of their energy contracts. At the same time, Bolivia’s newly inaugurated president, Evo Morales, is a prime candidate to join Washington’s pantheon of Latin American bad boys, presently represented by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez."

Populist Principles

With this sharp turn to the left, Washington was keen to cultivate more moderate, if somewhat left wing leaders, to counter the popularity of Castro and Chavez. Thus the election of Fernando Lugo in April 2008 was seen as a possible opportunity to push back, although the U.S. ambassador in Asuncion warned that the State department would have to be watchful of Lugo’s populist background.

Cason made it a point to tell his bosses that Lugo was reading a Mandela biography when the U.S. ambassador came to visit. He also noted that Lugo cared little for material possessions: "He typically wears sandals, because that is who he is. He says he has owned two suits in his life; one for high school graduation and another for his ordination" and had only just bought his third.

“During his 11-year tenure as bishop, Lugo fought for campesino rights and organized the region’s peasant movement. Lugo has thrived in the social and religious arenas by reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised, largely with populist (though not necessarily incendiary) principles," wrote Cason, expressing concerns about Lugo’s ties to representatives of Venezuelan President Chavez, a relationship that “bears monitoring." Cason also warns that Lugo’s "strong populist leanings - including a reputation for detesting flaunting of wealth by the rich - would lead to rifts with the political establishment".

The cable also claims that "sensitive reporting" say Lugo had "loose personal ties to members of Paraguay’s Free Fatherland Party (PPL), the all-but-defunct leftist micro-party with an armed wing" and that "Lugo signed a petition in 2000 against USG funding for Plan Colombia. Lugo, along with President Chavez and many others, also signed a 2006 manifesto opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Latin America".

Despite these caveats, the U.S. ambassador appears confident that Lugo can be convinced not to join cause the other left-wing presidents in the region. "These Lugo insiders claim that he supports Chavez’ plans for Latin America; but Lugo has stated publicly and privately (to Embassy officials) that he will not align himself with Chavez”.

To the contrary the Paraguay president is said to have been “delighted” that the U.S. ambassador was in fact the first caller to congratulate him and to offer support for his government.

Cason ends the cable saying that it is unclear if Lugo will have the hability to govern. "He is a leftist at heart, but given the Liberal Party’s influence in his coalition and Congress’ strong role in the Paraguayan government, he will likely have to steer a center-left course".