Paraguay's President-Elect: 'I Am a Centrist'

On Friday, Fernando Lugo, a 57-year-old former Roman Catholic bishop, will be sworn in as president of Paraguay. Lugo made history in last April's national election when he defeated the candidate of the Colorado Party, which has been in power for more than six decades and is the world's longest-ruling party. Elected on campaign pledges to curb poverty and rampant corruption, Lugo considers himself a moderate, even though his political rivals sought to portray him as a populist who would seek closer ties to left-wing leaders in Latin America like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Lugo spoke recently with NEWSWEEK's María Amparo Lasso. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you consider yourself a leftist?
Fernando Lugo:
No, I have always said I am a centrist, like the hole of a poncho, standing above political parties. That was a decisive ingredient in our triumph. [As a priest and bishop] I have chosen a preferential option for the poor for the past 30 years, but you cannot translate a pastoral option into an ideological/political choice.

During the electoral campaign you were keen to distance yourself from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Why?
In Paraguay we will design our own political project. Each country has the independence to build its own model, [and] we will not emulate Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia or Ecuador.

But you seem to be following the lead of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in calling for the election of an assembly that would draft a new constitution for the country.
Paraguayan society wants a new constitution. We traveled throughout the country listening to people's needs, and one of the most important demands had to do with rewriting the 1992 Constitution, [which] has many flaws. It is time to call a new constituent assembly to modernize our democratic institutions.

What does Chavez's so-called 21st-century socialism mean to you?
I think it is a work in progress. If 21st-century socialism promotes social justice, equality and harmony, it could be a viable project [for Paraguay].

You have criticized the United States for supporting dictatorships in the past. How do you view your relationship with the U.S.?
We want to improve our relations with the United States. I have been invited by the Bush administration to visit the U.S. very soon, and this will be an opportunity to find new ways of cooperation.

Brazil wants to create a South American Defense Council that would develop regional military policies without U.S. participation. Do you back this plan?
We are studying it. We need to see what is best for South America and have more talks on regional security issues. We have agreed to discuss this proposed council, but not as a replacement for the Organization of American States or other international organizations that can help strengthen security in our continent.

Is there any truth to the claims of some activists that the U.S. is secretly operating a military base at an airport in western Paraguay?
I reject categorically any suggestion that U.S. military bases exist in Paraguay. On the day after my Inauguration, we will open that airport facility so we can destroy this myth.

You have announced your intention to seek better terms for the electricity that Paraguay sells to Brazil, generated by the Itaipu dam that is jointly owned by both countries. But Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has already stated that the existing treaty terms governing that energy source are not negotiable.
We think the treaty isn't fair, and we will fight to get a just price [based on] market prices. President Lula is sending an emissary to Paraguay at the end of this month, and that is a clear expression of his will to discuss this issue.

Will you carry out a comprehensive land reform?
We have initiated talks with all the sectors. For the first time ever, large estate owners, peasants, agricultural exporters and rural landless workers have sat down at the same table and begun to design an agrarian reform that won't provoke any friction.

Will you boost export tariffs on agricultural products like soybeans, as the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has done in neighboring Argentina?
Yes. Paraguay is the only country with zero tariffs on soy. We will push for tariffs on the exports of grains and other products [to redistribute resources toward the country's poor].

You have expressed a preference to live in your modest house on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital of Asunción rather than move into the presidential palace. Is that because it's difficult to leave behind your clerical lifestyle?
You don't stop being a priest overnight. But now I feel as free as any other citizen in my country to exercise my rights.