Paraguay: A Priest in Wolf’s Clothes

Fernando Lugo was tense during our first formal interview. I didn't see this, but my photographer did.

My first impression of the priest-turned-presidential candidate was that he was a politician through and through. No different from the pols I meet in the States—slippery with a glass smile and an eye on the time. His responses were short and calculated and he resisted all my efforts to bridge the reporter/source gap.

Why do people call this guy special?

Looking at the photographs, though, I pushed for a second meeting where I found a priest trying hard to play the part of a politician.

Fernando Lugo the politician was born out of the land conflicts in 2001 when soy growers had finally pushed into his diocese of San Pedro in the very center of the country. Most of Lugo's opponents say Lugo contributed to the conflict by telling the small peasant farmer that big land owners cheated them out of land and poisoned them with agri-chemicals.

"I believe his style of leadership is conflict. He is not a person who holds people together," says Hector Cristaldo who runs Paraguay's 22,000-strong farm union (Agricultural Coordination of Paraguay). Cristaldo is no friend to the Colorado party, but he blames Lugo for starting the land conflicts. "I am worried about Lugo. Looking at his background, I am worried."

The person Cristaldo describes is not the Lugo I spent time with. Having watched him work and interviewing dozens of people surrounding him, I see a person more comfortable being a pastor than politician.

Lugo drives his staff to appointments, his fingernails are long, and he has a good amount of dandruff. He walks very slowly to the stage and talks to and hugs everyone who approaches. His speeches are boring like sermons and he clutches his notebook like a Bible. When he doesn't know he's being recorded he will sing and dance for you. But when the mic is on and Americans are listening he gets tense. Hardly characteristic of someone who leads through conflict.

So how do I reconcile the two Lugo's?

"When I arrived in San Pedro in 1994 there were 22 different peasant groups," Lugo told me about the conflict between big and small growers. "I do believe we managed to harmonize the two models of agriculture production"

This is optimistic at best and doesn't accurately describe the tentative truce that exists (in order to pacify the land invaders the government promised to redistribute land, many of those promises have yet to be fulfilled).

Pressing him on the conflict between big and small farmers, I get this: "Yes, but we need to have rules and regulations and laws in which we need to prescribe both models particularly with regard to the environment for instance. And also the small land owners need to develop in order to create cooperatives so they can get closer to a more efficient way of producing."

When Lugo sees conflict he mediates compassionate solutions beneficial to everyone involved ("rules and regulations," "more efficient way of producing"). Cristaldo is probably correct in thinking that this is different from mediating diplomatic solutions that would benefit something larger, like a country.

Pedro Fadul, who wanted to be Lugo's vice president but was pushed aside, has so far summarized all this best. Fadul thinks Lugo will have great difficulty governing if he were to be elected:

"He is a priest and the priest has its characteristics. He knows how to listen but he has some difficulties taking decisions day after day in real life not in heaven. People come with problems that need to be solved today, it's not enough to bless them and send them to pray."