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2012-05-07 issue:

Paraguayan Mennonites enter politics

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In April 2011, Arnoldo Wiens, a 47-year old Paraguayan Mennonite pastor and executive director of several Mennonite-sponsored media enterprises, announced his candidacy to represent the Colorado Party in the upcoming national presidential race in 2013. Though his decision took some Mennonites in Paraguay by surprise, Wiens is a compelling candidate.

Fluent in Spanish, German and Guaraní, he had established himself in the national media as an award-winning journalist and widely recognized host of several popular radio and TV programs focusing on themes such as the Christian family and the natural beauty of Paraguay. In a political context notorious for its corruption, Wiens defined his candidacy as a Movement of Republican Values (“Movimiento Valor Republicano”).

Not only was he a Mennonite pastor, his doctoral dissertation in theology, which appeared in book form in 1997, focused on “Christian Faith and the Challenge of Corruption in Latin America.”

The Paraguayan electorate took note. In early March of 2012, polls showed Wiens claiming 15 percent of the vote, a remarkably high figure in a campaign that has included numerous candidates. Given the long dominance of the Colorado Party in the history of Paraguayan politics and the deep national frustration with the current government, it seems clear that whoever wins the nomination within the Colorado Party is almost certain to become the country’s next president.

The story of Arnoldo Wiens is only the latest chapter in the fascinating and complex history of Paraguayan Mennonite encounters with the state. In many ways, the migrations to the Paraguayan Chaco in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s—following a tragic encounter with the Bolshevik Revolution, a complex relation with German National Socialism, years of upheaval and terror under Stalin and frustrations with provincial governments in Canada—could be understood as a flight from politics. Throughout the long reign of the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), Mennonites insisted they wanted nothing to do with politics.

Yet political engagement of one sort or another seems inescapable. Although Mennonites make up only about 1 percent of the country’s population, they produce some 40 percent of Paraguay’s meat, more than half its dairy products, and they employ thousands of factory workers. As a group, Mennonites enjoy incomes approximately 12 times higher than the national average.

Not surprisingly, in recent years Mennonites have begun to translate their economic influence into the political arena. During the past two decades, many Mennonites have served as elected officials in regional and national parliaments and as the governor of the province of  Boquerón, home of the three largest Mennonite colonies. In 2003, the country’s newly elected president, Nicanor Duarte Frutos—whose wife, Gloria, was an active member of the Raices Mennonite Brethren congregation in Asuncíon—convinced several Mennonites to serve in powerful cabinet-level positions. To be sure, that presidency ended under a disappointing cloud of corruption charges and renewed debate about involvement in national politics. But when Nicanor’s successor, Fernando Lugo—a Catholic ex-bishop and friend of the controversial Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez—made issues of land reform, economic justice and the human rights of indigenous peoples the center of his political agenda, many Mennonites began to worry.

Early last December, Wiens wrote a letter to “the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay” and evoked the memory of past encounters with socialist governments. “In Paraguay,” he wrote, “we have found a new homeland … and have advanced to become the prosperous colonies that we are today.

Unfortunately, he continued, “the communist ideology” of the current government means that “our future in this country is no longer secured.” Supporting the Valor Republicano, Wiens insisted, “will clearly protect private property” and restore moral order to Paraguayan governance.

On March 3, however, Wiens shocked his supporters by suddenly suspending his campaign and declaring his support for a rival candidate, Horacio Cartes. The announcement was especially surprising since Cartes is under investigation in both Paraguay and the United States for alleged connections to several Mexican drug cartels.

How the drama will play out remains to be seen. In the meantime, Mennonites in North America, who continue to struggle mightily over the nature of their own political involvement, would benefit from ongoing attention to the Paraguayan story. What counsel would you give the Mennonites in Paraguay? What would you like to learn from them? Could you imagine a Mennonite president?

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