Hugh O’Shaughnessy, author of “The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation” (Zed Books), reflects on the character of Fernando Lugo, the man who seemed destined to be a general but became a priest; the priest who became a father and then a president.
Would Fernando Lugo Méndez have made more of a mark if he had been able to adopt his chosen career and become a general, the summit to which his early and very promising years in uniform seemed to point?
Could he have done more for his country in the forces than as the bishop of San Pedro Apóstol del Ycuamaneyú, one of the poorest dioceses of a very poor country?
The answer to both questions might well be yes.
At the most obvious level, that of fathering a number of children by different mothers would certainly not have produced the bad publicity those actions generated when he entered the verbistas, the Divine Word Missionaries, became a priest and continued up the ecclesiastic path. His fecundity, as a young blade in uniform, would scarcely have attracted attention.
As a boy, Lugo was very keen indeed to make a military career in the dying days of the corrupt Western-supported presidency of Alfredo Stroessner and the tail end of the apparently in interminable dictatorship of the Colorado Party. A photograph in my biography shows him celebrating his young uniformed comrades-in-arms at CIMEFOR, the training unit for reserve officers, around a table well loaded with what looks like champagne.
At the end of his course he graduated in first place. But he fell victim to the petty jealousies of Stroessner and the Colorados. The young Fernando’s uncle was Epifanio Méndez Fleitas, a leading Colorado and talented musician who fell foul of Stroessner. The US embassy in Asunción had not liked Epifanio and his anti-Stroessner supporters the epifanistas either: Dwight Eisenhower, grateful for Paraguayan help in the crushing of the democratic forces in the Dominican Republic and the reinstatement of authoritarian rule, always had a soft spot for the Paraguayan tyrant. When the CIMEFOR authorities realised their star pupil, known as “Nono” ,was the seventh son of Maximina (née Méndez), the sister of Epifanio, they marked down his papers, robbed him of his success and he was persuaded to seek another career.
After a period as a teacher Fernando went for the clerical career and gave up the ideas of change through enlightened military rule he might have pushed through after the period of national chaos which was the Stroessner years.
Later, the transition from diocesan bishop to politician and presidential aspirant was a reasonable step for Lugo to make. He twice petitioned the Vatican to relieve him of his episcopal duties and was twice turned down before he went his own way. After he won the presidency Pope Benedict sent him the present of a pen – though today most of the Paraguayan bishops have shown delight in his overthrow.
The overthrow of Lugo is a particular calamity for the Obama administration and the for the faltering leadership of Hillary Clinton at the US State Department. Her backing for Federico Franco as head of state will further puncture whatever credibility remains in US pretensions to be on the side of democracy in Latin America. Her partiality for might over right, as earlier demonstrated in the coup d’etat against President Zelaya in Honduras, is now clear.
Happily Latin American leaders are showing their desire not to see the impostor Franco joining their ranks. The Lugo case is not over yet, and Lugo may have further roles to play in his country’s future.