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Paraguay ends one-party rule

Leftist ex-bishop Fernando Lugo shoved aside Paraguay's infamous 61-year history of one-party rule as he took office yesterday with promises to end corruption and hunger in the poor South American nation.

Almost shouting to swear that he would uphold the constitution, the typically mild-mannered Lugo was met with thundering cheers from more than 50,000 Paraguayans crowded around a stage outside Congress.

Lugo spoke in Spanish and the indigenous Guarani language, pledging to end the extreme poverty, institutional political corruption and trade in black market goods that defined Paraguay under the Colorado Party, which had ruled continuously since 1947 and was the only party tolerated by the anti-communist Gen. Alfredo Stroessner during his brutal 1954-1989 dictatorship.

"Today Paraguay breaks with its reputation for corruption, breaks with the few feudal lords of the past," said Lugo, dressed in leather sandals and his trademark white, mandarin-collared shirt to set himself apart from the nation's traditional politicians.

After the inauguration to a 5-year term, he gave warm bear hugs to the continent's three most prominent leftists, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

US Commerce Secretary Carlos Guttierez got a handshake. While Lugo has warned he won't accept US meddling, he also said he wants Paraguay to maintain warm relations with Washington.

He later told reporters that his country seeks relations with all nations small and large, mentioning a few but not the United States. Lugo also said he has brushed off warnings that he should fear Chavez, the continent's most strident critic of the United States.

"I'm not scared of anyone," Lugo said at a news conference attended by Chavez, Correa and prominent Brazilian liberation theologist Leonardo Boff.

At home, Lugo faces pressure to make changes fast to ease the deep divide between Paraguay's rich and poor.

But experts don't expect him to govern with sudden decrees or heavy-handed management of the economy like Morales and Chavez. They predict he will seek broad support for reforms, in the style of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's center-left president — who also got a hug.

The inaugural address made it clear that Lugo's ideas about justice for the poor are drawn from leftist South American luminaries. He cited Boff — who was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II — and Salvador Allende, the freely elected Marxist President of Chile toppled in a bloody 1973 coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

"Today marks the end of an exclusive Paraguay, a secretive Paraguay, a Paraguay famous for corruption," said Lugo, who will donate his US$72,000 salary to the poor.

"We dream of a Paraguay with social justice, without hunger."

Elements of the political left and right already have challenged Lugo's authority, raising the specter of political chaos and civil unrest.

Landless peasants who have been seizing private property are threatening a much larger wave of takeovers. The new administration also suspects the outgoing government tried to undermine his presidency by allowing critical supplies of fuel and medicine to disappear.

The Colorados still control most government institutions and will likely frustrate efforts to redistribute land in the small, landlocked country, where an estimated 1 percent of the people control 77 percent of the land.

Lugo has promised to respect private property in his bid to grant land to the poor, but told cheering Paraguayans his administration "will work boldly to obtain better living conditions for the peasants, whether they have land or not."