Latin America's Latest Marxist Leader Takes Power in Paraguay

Paraguayan elections flew under the media radar -- and, perhaps, Washington's as well -- this past weekend as Latin America got its latest leftist leader in Fernando Lugo.

Reports feted Lugo -- a Roman Catholic bishop suspended by the Vatican for his political aspirations (his 2006 resignation request was denied) resting on Marxist "liberation theology" -- as turning power away from conservatives for the first time in more than six decades, and reiterated his reputation as a man of the poor in a country where 32 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

But the real story was captured on the Web site of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, where a bold headline led the home page: "President Chavez congratulates the new president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo." Since Hugo Chavez doesn't offer such warm tidings to everyone -- he likely wishes leprosy upon presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia or Felipe Calderon of Mexico, for instance -- one immediately pays attention.

But are they just brothers in populism, or staunch allies-in-waiting?

The story on Chavez's Web site said that Chavez had hopped on the horn for a "friendly telephone conversation" to congratulate Lugo. Chavez's communique lauded "brother" Paraguay for its "political maturity," words that wouldn't have escaped his lips if Blanca Ovelar of the ruling conservative Colorado Party had won.

A simple majority was all that was needed to win the election. Lugo, who takes office Aug. 15 and is called the "Red Bishop" by foes, had more than 40 percent of the votes when Ovelar, the first woman to compete for the Paraguayan presidency, conceded with about 30 percent of the vote.

Chavez's communique continued to say that both he and Lugo were eager to "meet as soon as possible" to map out plans for their "cooperation."

In speaking with McClatchy Newspapers, Lugo voiced the same kumbaya sentiments about Chavez: "We have to get to know each other sometime. So many things have happened, and we've never met. He wants to meet me, and I want to meet him."

But proving that Chavez isn't the only cog -- just the squeakiest -- in the Marxist turn of Latin America, Ecuador's president jubilantly busted out some Fidel-speak to hail Lugo's election.

"The triumph of comrade Fernando Lugo is ... yet another stone in the foundation of this new Latin America that is just, sovereign, independent -- and why not, socialist," Rafael Correa said as Argentina's leftist President Cristina Fernandez visited. Fernandez, the wife of the last leftist Argentine leader, Nestor Kirchner, got off to her own socialist start by

decreeing dramatic increases in export taxes for soya beans -- and got a crippling farmers' strike in return.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega waxed poetic about "the feeling that today we Latin Americans share, of counting on one more brother in building this alliance of the people for true democracy and independence."

If Lugo -- who has told the Associated Press he wouldn't be "submissive" to Washington or others -- has publicly shied away from the tango with Chavez and clan up to this point, the courtship is about to begin in force. And if you're known by your fan club, one expects nothing less than Paraguay joining the club of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and their softer-in-rhetoric yet solidly left cousins.

Lugo's Patriotic Alliance for Change is a decidedly center-left coalition of groups ranging from the Broad Front to the Movement for Socialism that united with the single-minded purpose of ousting the Colorado Party from power. (Though, given Paraguay's history, many will just be happy to have a bloodless transfer of power.) Additionally, no single party will dominate the country's congress, meaning that Lugo will have to be open to internal

deal-cutting -- or, depending on his ensuing leadership style or the strength of his coalition, intimidating or otherwise forcing the hand of the right.

Lugo told McClatchy that his economic vision includes "building an alliance between private enterprise and the state ... We need to use our creativity and create a new Paraguayan model that comes from the Paraguayan reality."

But Lugo -- called "the bishop of the poor" by his fans -- has promised property to all of the country's landless peasants, and that has to be taken from somebody to redistribute. Lugo's supporters, according to The Independent, even hooked up thousands of migrant workers in Argentina with free train rides back to the Paraguayan border so they could vote for the suspended bishop.

Does all of this mean that Lugo will reach the point of nationalizing industry -- he claimed during the campaign, while trying to convince voters he wouldn't be a Hugo doppelganger, that he wouldn't -- or that Paraguay, a renowned transit point for weapons, drugs, and even Hezbollah, will back up Chavez in his quest to unite Latin America in his socialist utopia and strike out at U.S. "imperialism"?

A little bit of Chavez's discount oil could buy a lot of loyalty.

Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.