|Paternity Claims Harms Paraguay Leader
By Gary Duffy
April 24, 2009
One year on since he was elected to office as President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo is making headlines in the country he leads, but for all the wrong reasons.
Newspapers and TV programmes have been dominated by stories of women coming forward to claim they had a child with the former Catholic bishop.
This "political soap opera", complained one of these reports, is "paralysing the government".
Three women have made allegations so far and there were reports in the Paraguay media that there may be more claims to come.
It has been a testing time for a man who was elected proclaiming the virtues of honesty and ending corruption.
One of the women has alleged she was 16 when the relationship began - making her under the legal age of consent of 17 - and a public prosecutor is now considering the implications of that claim.
Another said she turned to Mr Lugo as a bishop for help when she had been abandoned with a new born child, but he abused his position in the Church to exploit their relationship, and a year later she was carrying his child.
In the style of other political leaders caught in this kind of spotlight, the president made a series of earnest denials during the election campaign, even scoffing at claims that he had a girlfriend.
He has so far acknowledged only one paternity claim.
Hortensia Moran is the third woman to say she had a child by the president, but in contrast to the other two, she defends Fernando Lugo as her "ideal man".
Her quiet home in Capiata, near to the capital Asuncion, is now the centre of endless media attention, with neighbours and local children watching in fascination as media crews arrive on an hourly basis.
A friend, who is acting as a temporary media advisor, tells the BBC that the day before had been set aside for interviews with the Paraguayan press and TV, but helpfully today they were dealing with the international press.
In the midst of this media whirlwind, Ms Moran comes across as a dignified individual, reluctant to voice any criticism of Mr Lugo.
However, she appears hurt to discover that the relationship she says she had with a man she loves, overlapped with another woman.
"It really caused me a lot of turmoil, because I always considered our relationship to be so pure, so beautiful," she tells the BBC.
"When the moment comes, I am going to demand an explanation, because I haven't been able to speak to him personally yet."
But she adds: "I believe I found all the perfect qualities I was looking for in a man.
"When he was a bishop I used to tease him, saying I did not want to be close to him because I saw him as a man, not as a priest."
However, with endless ridicule being heaped upon him, the president also faces a certain credibility problem.
The crowds were singing "Lugo has a heart" when the new president was swept into office a year ago promising an end to corruption and land reform.
Now a pop group has put a different interpretation on that victory anthem, mocking the former bishop for breaking his vows but sticking to Papal teaching on contraception.
"Lugo has a heart" the song says - "but he didn't use a condom".
The opposition is also ridiculing the president by calling him the "father of all Paraguayans".
Alvaro Caballero, who works with a democracy development project in Paraguay, says there is little doubt the president has been damaged, but he says in this deeply macho society people are more understanding of what happened.
"Presidents having several women are not uncommon in our history, and people do not find it that scandalous," he tells the BBC news website.
"We react more like French people would do, if they knew their prime minister had a second woman. It wouldn't be that scandalous, as it would be in the United States for instance," he says.
"In Paraguay there is not that radicalised Puritanism that you may find in other countries."
As for Mr Lugo he is promising to always act in line with the truth.
In a news conference on Friday he appeared both apologetic and defiant.
"As I ask for forgiveness once more, I must insist that I am the man that Paraguay chose to promote a change that can not be undone," he said.
"It was not my intention to offend anyone. I don't have a problem asking for forgiveness when I recognise that I have failed the church, the country, the people and all those who believed in me."
Despite all the pressure, the president made clear that he had every intention of staying in office until his term ends in 2013.
As one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Paraguay has many problems to confront, and many commentators have observed this is a distraction it could do without.
The so-called "crisis bill" to confront the fallout from the worldwide economic situation has still to be presented to Congress.
There has been a messy cabinet reshuffle which was seen as a major humiliation for the ministers involved - one of whom was told of his dismissal by phone at a trade fair in Germany.
And it seems Fernando Lugo has an increasingly fractious relationship with his vice-president, Federico Franco.
The scandal has been a diverting source of conversation for the last three weeks in the bars of cafes of the capital Asuncion - but there is also a sense here that this is a leader who needs to get on with the task for which he was elected.
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