ASUNCION (AFP) — An ex-bishop who ended 61 years of one-party conservative rule in Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, was sworn in Friday as his nation's president, further swelling the ranks of leftwing leaders in South America.
Ideologically aligned leaders, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa attended the ceremony in Asuncion.
"I am a layman thankful to his church, anchored by his faith and his humble background," a teary-eyed Lugo, wearing sandals and a simple white shirt, said as he took over from outgoing president Nicanor Duarte.
Lugo in an April election bested Duarte's Colorado Party, which had held power since 1947. He has sworn to combat the poverty that afflicts nearly half of Paraguay's six-million strong population.
The bearded 57-year-old former Catholic priest told media before his investiture that he did not plan to marry during his five-year term.
His sister Mercedes told the Argentine daily Clarin: "I'm virtually convinced that, when Fernando Lugo finishes his term, he will return to religious life."
Lugo, whose popularity has been recorded as high as 97 percent, received special dispensation from Pope Benedict XVI to leave the church to become president, with the option of returning to the clergy afterwards.
He was propelled to the forefront of Paraguayan politics by a coalition of opposition parties, the Patriotic Alliance for Change, and has the respect of several Colorado Party lawmakers who were disaffected with Duarte.
Lugo has renounced his 40,000-dollar presidential salary and urged other politicians to do the same as a symbol of his vows for economic austerity and transparency.
"I have no need of this money, which belongs to more humble people," he told the 15,000 people at the ceremony.
He said he would be "implacable with the robbers of the people" in his chronically corrupt nation.
The swearing-in ceremony was also attended by Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Machado, Iranian Vice President Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
Paraguay is one of just 23 countries which recognize Taiwan rather than China, and there are reports that Lugo could switch diplomatic allegiance.
Hashemi, meanwhile, stressed his country's ties with several of the Latin American states represented.
Iran "is a good friend of Venezuela and today we have another friend: Paraguay," he said, adding that relations with Ecuador were also "developing strongly."
Lugo's immediate challenge will be in making a dent in his country's poverty, especially in this period of rising food prices and a declining world economy.
Although Paraguay's gross domestic product grew a respectable 6.8 percent last year -- its best rate in 25 years -- on the back of strong sales of beef, soya and other farm goods, inflation also advanced to a worrying 7.7 percent, and the wealth disparity remains vast.
He also has several issues with neighbors to iron out, notably with Brazil, with whom Paraguay shares operation of a border hydroelectric plant.
Brazil currently pays 300 million dollars a year to Paraguay for sucking up 95 percent of the output from the massive Itaipu plant.
Lugo wants to increase that to two billion dollars, but Brasilia has made it clear it will not renegotiate.
In broader terms, Lugo will have to negotiate between the hardline current of leftwing politics in Latin America embodied by Venezuela's Chavez -- who frequently tries to use his oil wealth to woo poorer countries in the region into his orbit -- and Bolivia's Morales, and the more centrist current of Brazil's Lula and Chile's Bachelet.
In a possible sign that the new president intends to tread a moderate path, he has chosen a reformer with a privatization bent, Dionisio Borda, as his finance minister.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »