Open-necked in Asunción

The western media has ignored nuance surrounding the first address of Paraguay's president Lugo, say

Most of the Western media don’t do symbolism – or rather, can’t do symbolism. This was demonstrated by their reporting of the hugely symbolic assumption of the presidency of Paraguay last Friday by Fernando Lugo, former bishop of the poor diocese of San Pedro. Coverage was generally limp, grudging and dismissive of a ceremony of hemispheric significance, which should have presented any editor up to his job with a thrilling challenge. There were few or no such editors on duty on Friday. They are seldom on duty at all.

On Friday Lugo brought to an end the longest period of one-party rule anywhere in the world. The record was that of the Colorado Party, which on Friday morning had been governing for no less than 61 years, rather longer than the Chinese Communist Party.

The party gave its country the 35-year dictatorship of that pestilential apostle of corruption, General Alfredo Stroessner, and always knew that it could count on its friends in Western governments not to rejoice when it fell. After all, Paraguay under Stroessner and the Colorados had been a friend of these governments for a very long time. Hadn’t he sent Paraguayan troops to back the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 - when patriotic Dominican officers looked as though they had a chance of success in overthrowing a military junta - and restoring the constitutionally elected president?

Lyndon Johnson told the world that the patriots were commies. The Organisation of American States concurred. The OAS always concurs with a US president, that has been its job for past hundred years, and that is why it has a tasteless but sleepy headquarters in Washington. 42,000 US Marines, including a handful of Alfredo’s Finest, attacked and won - and the Dominicans relapsed into despair and torpor which is still visible in the hungry faces of their young people. A lot of people whose fathers and grandfathers flourished under Stroessner and his tyrannical friends, from Pinochet in Chile to Bordaberry in Uruguay, would have been sad to see the passing of the Colorados, the last dictatorial contingent in a long and dishonourable line.

They were certainly sad to see President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, the last Colorado boss, being edged out by a man in sandals and an open-necked shirt, accompanied by a few friends with similarly symbolic dress sense. The sandals were the sort that St Francis of Assisi wore, we are told, and the open-necked shirt was in fact the ao po’i, the garment that the indigenous Guaranis wear. Lugo was demonstrating in his dress what he said in his first presidential address; that he was going to take some notice at last of the poorest in society, and that his special attention would be given to the Guaranis themselves. Indeed, as the Paraguayan establishment spluttered to each other, after he had put on the presidential sash and taken the silver-tipped presidential wand of office, he had the effrontery to begin his address in the Guarani language. That is a tongue which is not comme il faut, but is probably better and more widely understood in Paraguay than Spanish is.

Lugo was not alone in his sartorial symbolism of support for the indigenes. Evo Morales, president of neighbouring Bolivia, who it is said hasn’t worn a suit and tie since his final school photograph several decades ago, was in native dress. When I spoke to him in Asunción in June, Lugo referred to Morales the indigene as offering “a new paradigm in Latin America”. He added, “It’s not easy for the new president of Bolivia but he’s become an emblem for the region”. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador was in a gorgeous embroidered shirt – without a tie, of course. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela had a tie on for part of the time, but they took it off and went about in a khaki shirt over a red vest.

Little of this was picked up by the Western agencies and commentators. any of them tried to report one of the most important events in Latin America in 2008 from Buenos Aires or other distant points.

What no-one was keen to highlight, was that with Lugo the powerful liberation theology – which John Paul II and Ronald Reagan had joined in trying to throttle – was back in a big way. This was also represented by the presence of Nicaragua’s poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, a former minister of culture, and himself no mean theologian. He wore an open-necked shirt, like all the best people, and sported his characteristic beret.

Few of the subtleties of Lugo’s first day came over in the western media. The editors will doubtless point out that that the Olympic Games were in progress and that one of the presidential candidates was scratching his nose. Symbolic or not those, they say, were the sort of thrilling items we want to know about.

Zed Books plans to publish Hugh O'Shaughnessy’s book on Lugo and Paraguay next year.