Paraguay’s bishop-president faces morality test

Fernando Lugo’s election to the presidency of Paraguay in 2008 was nothing short of phenomenal.   He had no previous experience in electoral politics.  His last job, the one he gave up to run for president, was as bishop of the Diocese of San Pedro. He appeared on the political stage as a moral warrior armed with the charisma of his former calling as a bishop of the poor.  No other politician could have mobilized the kind of popular support needed to end the 60-year rule of the Colorado Party, the party of Paraguay’s oligarchy.  But less than a year into his presidency, Lugo has stumbled badly in the very terrain in which he is supposed to be supreme — morality.

Within a span of one month, three women have come forward to claim that President Lugo has fathered a child with each one of them. Such scandals are not unusual among politicians, and the ex-bishop could have chosen to scoff at the rumors, the way he did during the campaign.  But, to his credit, he has publicly admitted he is indeed the father of Viviana Castillo’s son, the 2-year-old Guillermo Armindo. Viviana says that her relationship with Lugo started 10 years ago when she was 16 and he was still a bishop.

Lugo’s candidness may have emboldened Benigna Leguizamon, a worker at the San Pedro diocese, to file a paternity suit.  She said that the monsignor first seduced her in 2000 when she was 17.  Two years later, she became pregnant and gave birth to Lucas Fernando. The bishop paid the rent on the house in which she and her baby lived.  President Lugo has neither confirmed nor denied his paternity of the child, but he said he would comply with all legal procedures. Benigna’s lawyers have asked the president to submit to DNA testing.

Like deaths, births too seem to come in threes.  A week after Benigna went public, it was 39-year-old divorcee Damiana Moran’s turn to announce she too has a child with the bishop-president.  The boy, 16month-old Juan Pablo, is named after Pope John Paul II.  But unlike the two other women, Damiana says she wants nothing from him, asserting that her relationship with the president is “driven by great love.”  She thinks however that Fernando Lugo has sired three more children by other women.   The beleaguered president has not responded to this latest provocation.

As interesting, if only for its resonance in Philippine affairs, is what President Lugo has told his countrymen in a recent television interview.  He said he would not seek re-election as president.  After 2013, he told his stunned listeners, when his term as president ends, he will go back to his life in the Church, no longer as a priest or bishop, but as a simple worker in the Church’s many missions. Statements like this sustain the mystique of a man of God forced into the dirty world of politics in order to reform it.  Ultimately, however, they undermine the Church’s own authority.  This affair has put the Paraguayan Church on the defensive.

The Washington Post reports that one bishop, Rogelio Livieres, was quoted as admitting, “The church hierarchy knew for years of this misconduct by Lugo but kept silent. Now there’s nothing they can do.”

Within the boundaries of the religious community, it is possible to handle scandals of this nature with extreme caution.  Indeed, the instinct for institutional preservation often inclines the Church towards silence on these matters, at the cost of grave injustice to the victims. But the political system is an altogether different arena.  It feeds precisely on such scandals, always eager to turn the tables on moralists and pontificators of virtue.

President Lugo knows he cannot laugh off these scandals and treat them as nothing more than manly peccadilloes that the typical politician is heir to.  For he is not a typical politician. He came to power on the back of a moral crusade.  All that his enemies need to do to shoot down his crusade for good governance and social justice is to expose him as a moral fake.

It is always tempting to import moral capital from the religious system in order to bolster one’s political stock.  The ex-bishop’s current woes show that this comes with a high price.  There is no shortcut or substitute within the political system for basic constituency building. More than the semantics of morality, what any serious political player needs in this arena is a coherent program of government and a clear political strategy.

There is a lot of confusion about the relationship between morality and politics.  Moral communication can only irritate politics; it is in no position to transform it.  To transform politics means to establish the conditions under which alternative political values – accountability, transparency, competence, subsidiarity, etc.  — can be realized.  You cannot shame patron-clientism out of existence, nor corruption, for that matter.  These practices are rooted in the very structure of our highly unequal and hierarchical society.

To fail to see this is to continue searching for moral solutions to what basically are political and economic problems.  This futile search all too often ends with the identification of moral figures who simply cannot adjust to the distinct codes and rhythms of politics.  It may be too early to declare Paraguay’s bishop-president a failure.  His enemies have pierced his moral armor.  But he is a brave man, and his vision for his country is clear. If these scandals do not kill him, they can only make him strong.

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