“Priest Of Paraguay” Opens New Season At Bolivar Hall:

The autumn programme of events at London’s Bolivar Hall commenced last Wednesday 2nd September with the official UK launch of  “The Priest Of Paraguay”, the new biography of President Lugo by British journalist Hugh O’Shaughnessy. The author’s previous publications have included “Pinochet: The Politics Of Torture”(1999), “Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath”(1984) and Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Costs of Coca Fumigation” (2005). Over the past 40 years he has written on Latin American issues for a wide range of British newspapers, among them The Observer, The Independent, Financial Times, The Guardian and Tribune. His latest work, published by Zed Books, has been praised for “presenting the facts but embedding them in the unfolding drama and historical sweep of events” by ‘Morning Star’ commentator John Green, who also noted that O’Shaughnessy does not consider Lugo to be an extremist: “His views would not shame a left-wing democrat in any European Union country – a better sharing of wealth between rich and poor , the need to educate richer Paraguayans to realize that mass poverty is not their ally but a threat to their future”. However, “it remains to be seen whether the ruling elite will allow Lugo to implement even these modest demands”.

Bruce Kent, Vice-President of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND), introduced the author and the four other guest speakers to a substantial audience. Venezuelan Ambassador Samuel Moncada “totally recommended the book”, but also expressed some concern that the US bases in Colombia could potentially “threaten the peace in the entire region”. He was followed by the London-based Paraguayan writer and intellectual Ricardo Medina, who declared himself confident that Paraguay would not become “the next Honduras” and that the young officers in the military ” are absolutely committed to maintaining democracy in Paraguay. Lugo is the future”. Also on the platform was the respected expert on Paraguayan affairs, Dr Andrew Nixon, a Senior Lecturer in Birmingham University’s  International Development Department. For him, this “first-rate book” confirms O’Shaughnessy’s inclination to present Latin America in a positive light, combining “idealism with a deep analysis of what is going on in that part of the world. This is important because there is so very little written about Paraguay in the English language”. The book ends at the point when Lugo takes power, so “obviously doesn’t go into what has happened since then”. The previous day, declared Dr Nixon to loud applause, Paraguay’s state dental service had become free of charge for the first time . These were the things that mattered: Improvements in basic health and education services. On the other hand, Lugo’s income tax proposals had been rejected for the third time by the nation’s very conservative Congress. His freedom of action is “severely circumscribed” by Paraguay’s constitutional arrangement of a weak Presidency confronted by a strong Legislature and by the recent revelations about his personal life while he was still a Bishop.

Very much in Lugo’s favour, however, is the agreement reached in July with President Lula da Silva whereby Brazil (if its Congress agrees) will triple the £73 million pa it  currently pays Paraguay for  electricity produced at the Itaipu hydroelectric power plant on their joint border. Lula has been criticised within Brazil for “handing a gift” to his neighbour to the detriment of his own country’s electricity consumers and taxpayers “who will get nothing in return”. Dr Nixon pointed out that Paraguay is “the largest per capita exporter of energy in the world” and therefore deserves more attention from the global community. It was therefore “particularly welcome” that someone as knowledgeable about Latin America as O’Shaughnessy was prepared to devote time to producing a book about the country.

The final contribution from the podium came from Michael Lillis, who in the 1980’s was diplomatic adviser to the  Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and head of Anglo-Irish Relations at the Department Of Foreign Affairs. He has just written a book about the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870)  fought by Paraguay against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay , which had been ‘catastrophic’ for Paraguay and left the country with a “terrible legacy”. It has been estimated that only 10% of its male population survived the conflict. Lula’s conciliatory gestures towards Paraguay were “timely” and reminiscent of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s apology in 1997 for Britain’s failure to alleviate the suffering inflicted on Ireland’s by the potato famine in the 19th Century.  Ellis concluded that he would “say a prayer” for President Lugo’s chances. His contention that Paraguayan women are “the strongest in Latin America” was afterwards disputed by some members of the audience.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on September 7th, 2009 by Colin D Gordon

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