ASUNCION, Paraguay – Former Roman Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo, whose election broke a six-decade legacy of dictatorship and one-party rule, was sworn in Friday as president of this poor, landlocked nation in the heart of South America.
“Today a new Paraguay is born,” Lugo told thousands of supporters and various heads of state assembled outside the congressional palace downtown in the normally sleepy capital. “Today marks the end of an exclusive Paraguay, a secretive, notoriously corrupt Paraguay.”
This nation of 6 million has hosted a fragile democracy since the ouster in 1989 of strongman Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for 35 years under the banner of the Colorado Party. But Stroessner’s colorados retained power until Lugo’s inauguration – which is being widely seen as the nation’s definitive transition into democratic rule.
Lugo became the latest leftist leader to assume office in a region that a generation ago was largely ruled by U.S.-backed military dictatorships. Left-leaning, democratically elected presidents from eight South American nations were on hand to pay homage to their newest colleague in an impressive display of solidarity.
“This is a victory for the Latin American revolution,” declared Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez upon arriving at his hotel, where he was warmly embraced by Lugo.
Oil-rich Venezuela is reported to be considering funding a new university here, part of Lugo’s stated desire to improve the country’s long-neglected educational and health infrastructure.
However, Lugo has refrained from the U.S.-bashing style of Chavez and has signaled affinity for the policies of the region’s more moderate leaders. The Bush administration has welcomed Lugo and sent a sizable delegation.
Lugo, 57, rose from his status as hero of the landless poor to assemble a broad coalition that toppled the ruling party in April’s elections. The presidency is his first elective office.
As bishop of a rural province, Lugo often sided with the disenfranchised against the government and large landowners. A former parish priest and missionary, he comes from a middle class family of former Colorado Party activists that split with ex-dictator Stroessner.
Lugo resigned as bishop and left the priesthood to run for president, a move that angered a Vatican hierarchy historically hostile to clergy seeking political office. Following Lugo’s election, however, Pope Benedict XVI reluctantly agreed to return Lugo to lay status.
Lugo has remained a devout Catholic and unabashed advocate of Liberation Theology. The Third World movement champions the downtrodden but has been assailed by the Vatican for Marxist influences. Lugo and his sister, Mercedes Lugo, proceeded to a church service at the nearby Cathedral after the inauguration.