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Paraguay moves a bit to the left

Times Staff Writers

The election of Fernando Lugo as president of Paraguay signals the latest advance of the left in Latin America and the end of more than six decades of rule by a political party best known for a longtime anti-communist dictatorship.

Lugo, a bespectacled former Roman Catholic bishop, appears to be among the more moderate left-leaning leaders of South America, where only two major nations, Colombia and Peru, continue to be run by conservatives.

After sweeping to victory Sunday, he was quickly congratulated by the U.S. ambassador. State Department officials said Lugo has exhibited no outward hostility toward the United States.

“We’re ready to work with him,” said one State Department official, who declined to be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

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The now-dominant left in South America has taken many forms -- from the stridently anti-U.S. rhetoric of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales to the generally pro-Washington sentiments of Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet. Lugo, 56, dubbed “the bishop of the poor,” is seen as independent from the U.S. but not hostile.

“Lugo is a bit of an unknown quantity . . . but the indicators are that he’s a relatively moderate type,” said Gerald McCulloch, a former U.S. diplomat who heads the Paraguayan-American Chamber of Commerce, a trade group.

It is a measure of the changing times in U.S.-Latin American relations that a president-elect like Lugo hardly raises eyebrows in Washington. A decade ago, a chief of state with Lugo’s background probably would have sounded alarm bells. The ex-bishop endorses Liberation Theology, a doctrine criticized by the Vatican for Marxist influence.

Many observers on the continent say Washington’s intense focus on the Middle East in recent years has contributed to its diminished influence in Latin America. A region that was once at the center of Cold War politics is now an afterthought, according to many Latin American analysts.

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“I don’t think this [election] is even on Washington’s radar screen, given all the other stuff going on in the world,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

Part of the perception that Lugo will govern as a moderate stems from the broad-based representation in Lugo’s victorious Patriotic Alliance for Change, whose members range from the far left to the right. The coalition’s key institutional anchor is Paraguay’s Authentic Liberal Radical Party, a well-established conservative party with broad U.S. contacts.

Lugo’s vice president is a Liberal party standard-bearer. And as president, Lugo will have to rely on the bloc of Liberal lawmakers to get anything passed in a divided Congress.

“If you look at Lugo’s alliance, there’s a lot of mainstream political leaders,” noted one Western observer here. “It’s not all campesino groups. It’s not the coca growers union.”

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The latter is a reference to Bolivia’s Morales, who emerged from that nation’s coca growers movement -- long hostile to U.S. anti-drug policies -- before being elected president in December 2005. A cornerstone of Morales’ campaign was his alliance with Chavez and antipathy toward “imperialism” from Washington.

Lugo has studiously avoided such rhetoric. In a preelection interview with the Los Angeles Times, Lugo noted Washington’s sometimes-contradictory role in Latin America -- and especially in Paraguay. Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who ran the country with an iron fist for 35 years, was a U.S. Cold War ally before his government’s abysmal human rights record soured ties with Washington and he was ousted in 1989. His Colorado Party held power for more than 60 years before Lugo’s victory.

“The United States . . . has sustained the great dictatorships, but afterward lifted the banner of democracy,” Lugo noted.

However, he said, Washington must acknowledge a new scenario in which Latin American governments “won’t accept any type of intervention from any country, no matter how big it is.”

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It is a sensitive issue that resounds throughout South and Central America.

U.S. interventions -- coups, invasions, funding of armed groups -- have cast a shadow over relations between the United States and the region. Latin American leaders, including Lugo, are united in demanding noninterference from Washington.

“They don’t see themselves as part of the strategic preserve of the United States,” said Shifter of the Washington think tank.

Nevertheless, Shifter added: “The good news from the American perspective is that these governments still want to deal with the U.S., though on different terms.”

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The Bush administration, in turn, has backed off somewhat from unpopular and divisive projects such as an Americas-wide free-trade zone. Brazil and Paraguay were among the nations that balked at the plan, deeming it unfair to South American producers.

Just as Lugo has refrained from attacking Washington, he has also been careful not to assail Venezuela’s Chavez or lavish excess praise on him. Lugo -- who won 41% of the vote, compared with 31% for his chief opponent, Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar -- was forced repeatedly to deny links to the Venezuelan leader and insisted he would not be beholden to any side in the ongoing chill in relations between Chavez and the United States.

Asked to define his politics, Lugo has said he would negotiate an “intermediate line,” somewhere between the hard left of Chavez and Morales and the more moderate stance of Lula and Bachelet.

“We have to make our own road toward integration and not be an island between progressive governments,” Lugo told the Spanish daily El Pais. “Today in Latin America there are no unified, common paradigms.”

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During the campaign, many of Lugo’s foreign policy pronouncements focused on two giant neighbors -- Brazil and Argentina -- rather than on the U.S. The president-elect has vowed to get better deals from both nations on a pair of joint hydroelectric projects.

Lugo’s election has raised more public concern in Brazil than in the United States, which has relatively little investment here. Lula has firmly declared that Brazil is unwilling to renegotiate the terms of a major hydroelectric treaty that Lugo says cheats Paraguay out of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

“The treaty will not change,” Lula declared after congratulating Lugo on his victory.

Here in Paraguay, a nation of 6.6 million best known for decades of poverty, smuggling and right-wing rule, there is much speculation about what a Lugo administration will bring -- in foreign policy and most everything else.

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“We don’t know if Lugo will try to take the country closer to Hugo Chavez,” said Hugo Estigarribia, a senator-elect from the Colorado Party, which will now be the opposition bloc.

But many Paraguayans were euphoric at the prospect of change of a party apparatus condemned as corrupt and incompetent. Thousands celebrated on the streets.

“I’m 59 years old. I was born with the Colorado Party in power,” said Eladio Casanova, a waiter downtown. “But I didn’t want to die with the Colorado Party still in power.”

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

McDonnell reported from Asuncion and Richter from Washington.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Who’s left, right and center in South America

Key leaders in South America and when they were elected:

Left and center-left governments:

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Venezuela: President Hugo Chavez (elected 1998) is stridently anti-Washington.

Ecuador: President Rafael Correa (2006) is a Harvard-trained Chavez ally.

Brazil: George W. Bush calls President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2002) a friend.

Chile: President Michelle Bachelet (2006) is a lifelong socialist and firm U.S. friend.

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Argentina: President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s (2007) is close to Venezuela’s Chavez but also wants U.S ties.

Uruguay: President Tabare Vazquez (2004) hosted George Bush last year.

Bolivia: President Evo Morales (2005) says the U.S. plots to remove him from office.

Paraguay: President-elect Fernando Lugo (2008) says he is a moderate man of faith.

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Center-right governments:

Colombia: President Alvaro Uribe (2002) is major U.S. aid client on the continent.

Peru: Ex-leftist President Alan Garcia (2006) now embraces free trade with the United States.

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Source: Times reporting.


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