ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguayans are transfixed over a real-life soap opera set in the presidential palace: paternity claims by three women against bishop-turned-president Fernando Lugo.
The president, once known as the “bishop of the poor” but now seen as something of a playboy, stunned Paraguayans two weeks ago by admitting he had fathered a child while he was a Roman Catholic bishop. The acknowledgment came after the mother filed a paternity suit.
Since then, two other women have come forward with similar claims and Lugo, instead of denying them, asked the nation to forgive him.
The scandal has proved fodder for a torrent of e-mail jokes circulating in Asuncion, and even a popular song whose title is “Lugaucho” _ a wordplay on Lugo’s name and gaucho, Paraguayan slang for playboy.
One newspaper cartoon poked fun at the issue, showing presidential security guards pushing a baby stroller for triplets. Some jokes take aim at Lugo breaking his celibacy vows, but apparently respecting church rules against condoms.
Radio and TV talk shows buzz with the latest rumours, some suggesting Lugo may have even more children.
Many Paraguayans chuckle when asked about the scandal. But some express disillusionment with Lugo, who swept to office as a political outsider last year, ending more than 60 years of one-party rule in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
“We thought we’d finally found the answer to fix our broken political system,” said Jorge Giminez, a 34-year-old bus driver. “Who can you trust if you can’t trust a bishop?”
Others voiced support for the president, dismissing the uproar as orchestrated by the Colorado party that Lugo ousted from power and many Paraguayans blame for the country’s corruption.
“Why is this coming out now?” asked Rafael Quiroz, a mechanic. “The Colorados want to undermine him.”
Polls show Lugo’s popularity has fallen to below 50 percent from nearly 70 percent before the scandal. But most analysts say it is unlikely to seriously damage his government because of Paraguay’s macho culture.
On Friday, Lugo, 57, apologized for the scandal in an attempt to move forward. His lawyers, he said, were dealing with the claims submitted by the second and third women.
One woman, Benigna Leguizamon, a poor, 27-year-old soap vendor, wants child support for her 6-year-old son who she said Lugo had fathered.
Another woman, Damiana Hortensia Moran, 39, has defended the president and initially said she did not intend to sue him. But she hinted she may change her mind after the president has so far failed to recognise her son, who is one-and-a-half years old.
The scandal has already forced Lugo to roll back one of his first steps as president. Upon taking office he ordered that half of his around $5,000-a-month salary be donated to a state entity that helps indigenous communities.
He has since rescinded the arrangement, arguing he needs the money to pay child support for the nearly 2-year-old boy he acknowledged fathering with a woman less than half his age.
Lugo and Vivana Carrillo, 26, reportedly started their relationship when she was 16 and a parishioner at his former church. She has said the relationship lasted 10 years.
The scandal has cast a light on social issues in Paraguay, one of South America’s poorest countries, where experts say a disproportionately high number of children are born and raised in single-mother homes.
The heads of the government’s women and children ministries say because of the scandal they plan to begin campaigns to promote responsible parenting by fathers.
Lugo resigned as bishop of the impoverished San Pedro province in 2005 but continued as an emeritus bishop until late 2006, when he said he was leaving the church for politics. The Vatican granted him a special waiver to return to lay status, but not until after he was elected in April 2008.
Most of Paraguay’s 6 million people are Roman Catholics but, as in other Latin American countries, many people have low expectations of priests after repeated paedophilia scandals.
Amada Aquino, a 65-year-old saleswoman, said she continues to back Lugo but wants him to more quickly address the country’s political and economic problems.
“Now he needs to work even harder to help put all of this behind him,” she said.
Political commentators say Lugo is likely to face increased scrutiny on whether he makes good on his campaign promises of cleaning up corruption and helping poor farmers.
“Because he was a bishop, Lugo came to the presidency with a certain aura,” said Francisco Capli, a pollster at First Analisis & Estudios. “Now he’s lost that aura and has become just another politician.”
Editing by Philip Barbara