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Exclusive: Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo on US Relations in Latin America, the Iraq War, Liberation Theology and Being the "Bishop of the Poor"

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Fernando Lugo, President of Paraguay

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World leaders are gathering in New York this week for the 63rd session of the United Nations General Assembly. Their newest member is Fernando Lugo, who was inaugurated last month as the president of Paraguay. Fernando Lugo is a former priest and well-versed in liberation theology. He was called the "Bishop of the Poor" and is known for leading anti-government protests and fighting for peasant rights. After resigning his position as bishop in late 2006, he campaigned and won the election on a platform of land reform and fighting corruption. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to what’s happening here in New York. World leaders are gathering here for the sixty-third session of the United Nations General Assembly. Their newest member is Fernando Lugo, who was inaugurated last month as the president of Paraguay.

Fernando Lugo is a former priest, well versed in liberation theology. He was called the "Bishop of the Poor" and is known for leading anti-government protests and fighting for peasant rights. After resigning his position as bishop in late 2006, he campaigned and won the election on a platform of land reform and fighting corruption.

Lugo’s victory marks a historic break for Paraguay. He is the first president in sixty-six years not from the conservative Colorado Party.

Well, Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez and I had a chance to sit down with President Lugo on Sunday at the hotel where he was staying. This is his first broadcast interview in the United States.

    AMY GOODMAN: President Lugo, welcome to Democracy Now!, and welcome to the United States. You are the newest president in the world. What is your message to the world community at the United Nations that you bring?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] Thank you very much for this invitation. I think that Paraguay is experiencing a rebirth, becoming a new republic with a new vision of the world. Paraguay is changing, because Paraguayan citizens, the majority of Paraguayan citizens, on April 20th decided to change the political direction of the history of our country.

    And I would like to tell the international community that Paraguay is integrating fully into the world community. We want an integrated community without exclusions.

    And also our national community is recovering its dignity. We felt ashamed to hear that Paraguay was one of the most corrupt countries of the world. Today in Paraguay, we are going to show clear signs that Paraguay will be and is one of the most transparent countries, in terms of its public administration.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: You have many challenges, obviously, in the country. About 77 percent of the arable land is controlled by one percent of the population. What are you going to be doing in terms of land reform to be able — especially when you do not have a majority in the national legislature?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] Paraguayan society and the different sectors of Paraguayan society have reached a certain level of maturity. The time has come for us Paraguayans to sit down around the table and define our present and our future.

    As regards land reform, we’ve had an initial meeting with landless and peasant farmers, state institutions, technical experts and landowners. We sat down to dialogue without many differences. We are not frightened by differences or dissent. I think that as long as there is a will to sit down and talk, using the tool of dialogue, and work out consensuses, then it’s possible for us, ourselves, to design an integrated land reform that would benefit the majority of landless peasant farmers one finds in Paraguay.

    AMY GOODMAN: You were hailed as the “Bishop of the Poor.” Do you plan to be the President of the Poor?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] The President of all Paraguayans, first of all, without any exclusions. But if one must have preferences, it will be the indigenous and the poorest people of the country, who have always been excluded from all of the national programs and projects.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Shortly after you came into office, there were some reports of an alleged coup or attempt to overthrow you by some key leaders in government and in the military. What has happened with that, with those allegations? And do you fear any further attempts against you?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] I think that at this time, it’s not going to occur to anyone in any country of Latin America to carry out a coup d’etat, particularly with military participation. The experience of UNASUR, which is a new experience, an experience of solidarity among countries that are in the southern part of the hemisphere who are able to react expeditiously in response to such offense in the region, will be fundamental.

    I think that in Paraguay, the political class in Paraguay was accustomed to engaging in conspiracy on a nonstop basis. And those who held power for over sixty years have a hard time today understanding that they’re no longer in power, after they’ve lost this privilege. And so, I think there will be some efforts. But to recover the institutional framework and at the same time strengthen democracy in the country is the major objective of our government today.

    AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of attempted coups, President Lugo, one of your first acts after you became president was going to Chile, along with the presidents throughout Latin America, to deal with what is happening in Bolivia. What is happening? What do you think has to happen? And what about the role of the United States in Latin America?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] I think that the United States is aware of its role not only for Latin America, but internationally. It continues to be a very important country, a very powerful country, economically and politically. It has shown signs of democracy with its failings, with its lights and its shadows. And I think that the countries of Latin America today have also become more mature, so as to be able, in one way or another, to say we are free after 200 years of autonomy and political independence. Today, we can say that we are recovering the value of sovereignty, the value independence. And I think that the role of the United States is a role of equitable, fair relations, of dealing with the small and large countries of the hemisphere and of the world as equals.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: You confront not only, obviously, the huge nation of the United States, but you have a very big nation as your neighbor, Brazil, and there have been some conflicts in the past between Paraguay and Brazil, specifically around the issue of hydroelectric energy and treaties between Paraguay and Brazil that you consider unequal. What has been — what do you plan to do in that area? And do you think you’ll be able to reach an accord with President Lula and the Brazilian government?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] Our interest is not in confronting any country, small or large. Our interest and our task is simply to relate with all countries, small and large, but as equals, just as one week ago we spoke with Lula, President Lula, and his staff of technical experts and diplomats, and we sat down at the table as equals, and we put all the difficulties and problems and questions on the table relating to the Itaipu hydroelectric dam. And we’ll do likewise with any other small or large country from any part of the world if such differences exist that we take note of.

    We’re tied to Brazil by historical relations. We think that Latin American, and particularly Paraguay, is recovering its dignity as a nation. It has the capacity to relate as an equal and to solve by diplomatic means, using the tool of frank, open and sincere dialogue, all the differences that we might have with any country in the world.

    AMY GOODMAN: President Lugo, when we interviewed President Morales soon after you were elected, we asked him what he had to say to you. He said, “Welcome to the Axis of Evil.” Actually, he said, welcome to the axis of humanity.

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] I think that there are expressions such as "Axis of Evil" which are not all that felicitous today when it comes to sister nations characterizing themselves. I think that we need to look at the present and the future with hope and optimism, because most of the citizens who live in our countries, the indigenous peoples, the poorest of the poor, the peasant farmers, don’t talk about a confrontation, but rather about constructing a much more egalitarian, equitable, dignified and humanitarian world. So, yes, welcome to all of the countries of the world. And that is why we’ve come to the United Nations, because we want to build together for the planet that we deserve, that all us human beings deserve at this time.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And in mentioning controversial themes, liberation theology has also had a lot of controversy in Latin America. You came to political awareness as a priest and a bishop who espoused liberation theology. It’s not regarded well by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church today. What’s the role of the Catholic Church in Latin America today? Is it part of the change for progress, or is it still holding back progress?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] Liberation theology is a theology that emerged in Latin America, and it is a pastoral theology that cannot be judged from a doctrinal or a dogmatic standpoint. There are controversies, yes, because there is freedom of thought. Theology is to develop a free way of thinking. One doesn’t necessarily need to be in agreement with all of the other thinking of the Church. It has become a philosophical and sociological tool, very important for analyzing social reality.

    Moreover, liberation theology was considered by John Paul II in the letter that he wrote to the bishops of Brazil that liberation theology that was born in Latin America is now part of the theological heritage of the universal church. There is recognition of that theology. There may be different tendencies, and within those tendencies, some might be called into question, others might be criticized.

    AMY GOODMAN: I know you have to leave soon, President Lugo, but I wanted to ask you, the effect of the war in Iraq on you in Paraguay, the global economic crisis, and your advice for President Bush in dealing with other countries?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] Some think that the war in Iraq is very far from Latin America, but the effects that it’s having are worldwide. I think that it would not be good for a country to provoke a war in one part of the world and try to speak of peace in another part. I think that world leaders will demand coherence in policy, both foreign policy and internal policy. So I think that those contradictions, those controversies, these spaces of dialogue and confrontation, such as the United Nations, need to be clarified and set out a line, the line of humanity, of peace, of truth, of justice, that it needs to build justice in the modern world.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Did you ever expect, when you were a parish priest, that there would be so much progressive development, so many liberal and rebel leaders, really, coming to power in so many of the governments throughout Latin America?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] I think Latin America is changing. More than progressive governments or leftist governments, I think that there is a citizen consciousness that has grown and that calls into question and somehow sets the framework for the direction that national leaders need to have. I think that the major force — in our national constitution, we say that sovereignty resides with the people, and it is the people’s power, when it is organized, is to set out the direction for countries. And I think that’s what’s happening in Latin America.

    AMY GOODMAN: President Chavez gave you the sword of Simon Bolivar at your — in San Pedro. What was its significance? And also, finally, what the US is doing with Iran?

    PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] I think that there are historical figures whose importance recurs cyclically. In Paraguay. the forefathers of the country, 200 years after we gained independence, are becoming significant once again. And I think the same happens with Bolivar. When many of our countries have divided, we draw on a figure who wanted to unite Latin America and who dreamed of a great homeland. I think that that is what’s happening in Latin America today, especially with Bolivar.

    The sword of Bolivar is a symbolic question, because today, no one is thinking about using a sword to decapitate anyone, to behead anyone. I said in San Pedro, we’re going to use this sword to behead injustice and corruption, symbolically.

    And going back to the war in Iraq, we reject all types of violence, wherever it may come from. Violence has never brought a solution to any problem that humankind has faced. And I think that us leaders need to fully grasp this.

AMY GOODMAN: Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in his first broadcast interview in the United States. He is the newest leader in the world, here in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly.

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