WASHINGTON — The victory of Fernando Lugo, a left-wing former Catholic bishop, in Paraguay’s presidential election is being interpreted as confirmation of the continentwide trend against “neoliberalism”—that is, privatization, globalization and good relations with the United States. Although Lugo might choose to join Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s South American “axis of evil” (into which Bolivian President Evo Morales cordially and promptly invited him a few days ago), that is not what Paraguayan voters and Lugo’s coalition are clamoring for.

It is hard to blame Paraguayans for their choice of Lugo. He was the only ballot alternative to the Colorado Party, which has been in power for six decades. After the defeat of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, Paraguay’s Colorados became the longest-ruling party in the world, and spanned the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and every government since the return of democracy in 1989. The system was based on massive patronage—the reason 120,000 out of the 185,000 civil servants are party members, public officials own a large chunk of the economy and the judiciary is politically subservient.

The fact that Lugo won with 41 percent of the vote and that the Colorado Party candidates who came in second and third had more votes combined than the former bishop indicates the extent of that organization’s grip on Paraguayan society. However, a significant number of citizens from very different political backgrounds drove their support to the only leader with a chance of beating the ruling party. As a result, the president-elect’s Patriotic Alliance for Change is made up of parties and movements that cover the political spectrum. In fact, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, the largest one in the Lugo coalition, is center-right and detests Venezuela’s Chavez.

None of this guarantees, of course, that Lugo will not choose to join the Chavez club. He comes from the liberation theology tradition—the wing of the Catholic Church that uses Marxism to explain society in class terms and dependency theory to blame underdevelopment on the predatory instincts of rich nations. That movement gained such force in Latin America that Pope John Paul II led a crusade against it in the 1980s with the help of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope. As a result, liberation theology lost a lot of ground—which makes Lugo’s recent victory a somewhat “passe” affair. But perhaps it is precisely because of John Paul II’s success that Latin America has had to wait until 2008 to have its first liberation theology follower elected as a president.

Many facts seem to work against Lugo’s left-wing instincts. His Patriotic Alliance for Change will be in the minority in Congress. Paraguay’s economy is closely linked to that of Brazil, where a moderate government is in power: Brazilians own many of the farms on which soybeans are grown in Paraguay, and Paraguay sells to Brazil $300 million a year worth of energy from the Itaipu hydroelectric plant co-owned by both countries. However, similar things were said of Rafael Correa when he won Ecuador’s elections in 2007; Correa went on to dismiss Congress with popular support and join Chavez’s club. It was also said of Bolivia’s Morales that the resistance in parts of the country against the central government would limit his capacity to maneuver, and that Brazil’s presence in his country’s natural gas industry would be a moderating factor. Morales proved everyone wrong.

We don’t know which way Lugo is going to go. But we do know this: Paraguayans did not vote against globalization, free markets or good relations with the United States. They voted against authoritarian rule, patronage, elitism and corruption—the very characteristics of Latin American populism of the kind that Chavez, Morales, Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega are implementing. Whatever it calls itself—the right or the left—and whether it sings the praises of the United States or denounces imperialism, Latin American populism is greatly responsible for the poverty that still exists in the region, including 41 percent of Paraguayans. Correcting that state of affairs by giving Paraguay a more revolutionary form of populism would be a much worse sin on the part of this former bishop than having angered the church hierarchy by becoming a politician.

Lugo should keep in mind that what the Colorado Party system and Chavez’s populist republic have in common is much more important than what separates them.