On April 27, 2003, the citizens of Paraguay elected a new president. Paraguay is such a small country – its population was only 5.5 million at the time – that the story barely garnered a mention by the major US networks. Yet for Mennonites in Paraguay, the election of Nicanor Duarte Frutos that spring was a momentous event. Although the newly elected president himself was Catholic, along with 90 percent of the country, Duarte’s wife, Gloria, was an active member of the Raíces Mennonite church, a large Spanish-speaking congregation in the capital city of Asunción. Moreover, for several years, Duarte himself, along with the couple’s five children, regularly attended the church.
In the weeks that followed the election, the Mennonite connection to Paraguayan politics became even more visible. By the summer of 2003, for example, Duarte had persuaded four Mennonites to serve in cabinet-level positions in his government – proof, he claimed, of his seriousness about cracking down on government corruption. In the fall of 2003, Duarte resisted pressure from US president George W. Bush to send troops and military aid to Iraq, citing his Christian convictions and the pacifist witness of his wife’s congregation. In the meantime, he continued to attend worship services at the Raíces congregation, now accompanied by a retinue of armed bodyguards.
Duarte’s public association with the Mennonites of Paraguay evoked a fierce debate among the country’s Catholic elites, who took it for granted that Paraguay was a Catholic country. But it also triggered an animated discussion among Mennonites there about the relationship between church and state, a discussion deeply embedded in the nearly five-hundred-year-old Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.