The ruins of Jesuit missions in the border area shared by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay are all that remain of the theocratic state-within-a-state that once threatened the hegemony of the Spanish colonial empire.
The Jesuit Reducciones, commemorated in the 1986 film The Mission, are now long gone, their tumbledown buildings frequented only by squawking parakeets, butterflies and the occasional tourist.
The political importance of religion in the world’s most Catholic continent is undergoing a resurgence, however, as disenchantment with politics grows.
Nowhere is the trend more evident than in Paraguay, where a rebellious bishop, who has been suspended by the Vatican for his involvement in politics and now risks excommunication, is the frontrunner for presidential elections next year.
Monsignor Fernando Lugo Méndez could break the back of six decades of rule by the Colorado party, which has been in power for longer than any other existing government in the world.
“Sometimes the last resort that one can turn to is the church – people are tired of corruption, deceit, and robbery,” says the bearded, down-to-earth Monsignor Lugo, dressed in a grey sleeveless T-shirt and flip-flops.
He believes that his clean reputation and the fact he is not affiliated to any political party are the keys to his support. “But some of my credibility also stems from the fact that I am a member of the church,” he says, admitting that there are even some who see him as a kind of Messiah. On a recent trip to a remote and impoverished part of Paraguay, “the indigenous people said to me, ‘You haven’t come alone, God has sent you’ – but not everyone thinks like that.”
“Lugo’s popularity is a result of the crisis of the Colorado party and the damaged reputation of the political system,” says Jorge Lara Castro, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Asunción.
He argues that the party retains the dictatorial model of Alfredo Stroessner, who was deposed in 1989, and that the church is one of the only remaining credible institutions in Paraguay. The Colorado party is divided between politicians who indulge in “unbridled corruption”, and those who prefer “to administer corrupt practices in a more rational and sustainable way”, he says.
“Power always wears you down,” says José Alberto Alderete, the leader of the Colorado party, who admits it “has had its good and bad moments”.
“We have committed many errors and there are many things that stink which we must clean up – and we are doing that,” he said.
Monsignor Lugo faces three significant challenges. Firstly, according to Paraguay’s constitution, priests are forbidden to hold office, although he has renounced his priesthood – something which the Vatican itself has rejected. But analysts believe this will be more of a political than a legal debate.
Secondly, keeping a fragmented opposition under control will be not be easy, as it ranges from groups on the far left to those on the right supporting the imprisoned leader of a former coup, General Lino Oviedo. Nevertheless, he may have enough support to run alone, but, according to pollster Francisco Capli, he will still face another critical barrier that has held back previous opposition candidates: the Colorado party’s control of the polling booths.
Lugo’s own beliefs and policies have yet to be clearly defined, although his social commitments are clear and he is influenced by liberation theology, which holds that the church is obliged to help the poor. He admits to being “inspired by some elements of socialism” as well as admiring certain policies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
“It’s one thing to respect Chavez, but we cannot follow that model here as we don’t produce 3m barrels of oil a day like Venezuela does. We can’t go around nationalising everything,” says Lugo, who says he also respects the more moderate models of Brazil and Chile. “The large majorities here are excluded, the workers, the indigenous people – I don’t want anyone to be left out, not the industrial leaders and private businesses either.”
Monsignor Joaquin Piña – an Argentine bishop who was responsible for President Néstor Kirchner’s first major political defeat last year, when he succeeded in blocking a constitutional amendment allowing a provincial governor to be re-elected without term limits – argues that this is not possible.
“I think Lugo is making a mistake. Priests are not ready for politics, it is not their role – if one affiliates oneself with a particular party one is excluding all the rest,” says Monsignor Piña. “It’s going to create a problem in Paraguay. It’s a very Catholic country and the people will be disorientated.”
Mr Alderete is blunter: “Lugo has swindled the faithful of the Roman Catholic church by getting involved in national politics,” he says. “He is inciting rebellion and confrontation [which] contradicts his preaching from the pulpit of peace, understanding and unity.”