Public service offers challenges, rewards

Former adviser to Paraguay’s president tells of four years as cabinet official

When Nicanor Duarte Frutos, then president-elect of Paraguay, asked Ernst Bergen, a successful Mennonite entrepreneur, to join his cabinet, Bergen was astounded.

“I replied quickly, without thinking much, ‘You are completely crazy, Mr. President,’” Bergen said.
But Bergen agreed to reconsider the request when he reflected on how Mennonites in Paraguay criticize the government and think they have better solutions. After consulting his family, business partners, friends, and church, Bergen became minister of industry and commerce in August 2003, then minister of finance in May 2005.

By the time Bergen left office in July 2007, the Duarte administration had achieved many of its goals for Paraguay’s economy, including increasing exports, reducing external debt, and investing more in public works.

When Bergen joined the Paraguayan government, it was a new experience for Mennonites of the Fernheim Colony in the Chaco to have one of their own at a cabinet-level position.

“Normally what had been done in those communities is to do what the Bible tells us, which is to pray for government,” he said.

Yet, as Duarte pointed out, Mennonites criticize the government, so, “we must be willing to accept the challenge of public service,” Bergen said.

Bergen felt the prayers of Mennonites as he and several other Mennonites served in top government positions. Yet, for the community “it was also a lesson in humility, that not everything turns out right because Mennonites are in power,” he said.

Bergen made a rule of not appointing any fellow Mennonites to government roles. “I didn’t want to give the signal that Mennonites thought they would reform or take over any segment of government,” he said. “On the contrary, my goal was always to be as close as possible to the general Paraguayan population.”

Remembering the kindness the Paraguayan people had shown to Mennonite immigrants coming from Canada and Russia in the 1920s and ’30s, Bergen said, “God showed me clearly that I was a person who had the privilege now to give back something to the Paraguayan people by means of serving in this role.”

Respecting others’ perspectives

“They have different convictions than I do,” said Bergen of how his time in government led him to better understand members of the military. “I, for my part, had the joy of discovering it’s not my duty to judge others,” said Bergen. However, he would “be very hesitant” to take part in any military actions.

“I am profoundly convinced that human beings do not have the right to take away or terminate another human life,” said Bergen, who also opposes the death penalty and abortion.

Bergen also learned not to judge through the prison ministry of his congregation, Concordia MB Church in Asunción.

During visits to the prison, he found many of the prisoners no different in nature than he.

“Many of them were there because they committed an error at one moment of their life suddenly, under stress, and we in society condemn them and harm them greatly,” Bergen said. “God showed me that I, too, could commit errors and be there.”

Bergen brought that lesson to his work in government. His thinking is formed by “the deep awareness that I am not perfect,” he said.

The apostle Paul has been a model of leadership for Bergen. “He talks about his weaknesses, but nevertheless he continues to strive ahead,” Bergen said. “The important thing is that our mistakes do not distance or separate us from the heart of God.”

Bergen believes God provided him with coworkers in government who had strengths where he had weaknesses. They exceeded him in public speaking ability and had extensive academic study compared to his own. He studied business administration at Columbia University in Asunción and has a technician degree in agromechanics.

Financial responsibilities

Despite what he names as his weaknesses, Bergen’s success in his businesses, including one that supplies most of Paraguay’s electric engines and motors, has made him one of the wealthiest people in his country.

Bergen does not think it is wrong for a business owner to earn a great deal of money. Yet he believes growth for all parties involved is key, while “not growing excessively at the cost of others, not in the sense of seeking to destroy the competition.”

A top principle for him has always been to question the reasons one is earning money.

“Every family has to find their journey before God, and also in relation to the church,” he said. “If one has excessive ambitions and one sacrifices principles because of those ambitions, one is on a wrong path.”

Bergen also questions how society defines success.

“People who three months ago were considered successful on the global level, today we see them differently, and they have to see themselves differently,” he said. “Some of what we consider success might in God’s eyes be loss.”

Bergen’s advice for the U.S. also applies to Canada. “After elections and facing an economic crisis,” he said, “my advice would be to rediscover some of the transcendence of a relationship with God and understanding of God’s will for public life and public responsibility.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a reporter for the Mennonite Weekly Review. This story was prepared for Meetinghouse publications. The story of Bergen’s time in government is available in a book called Jumping Into Empty Space, as told to Phyllis Pellman Good of Good Books, released Nov. 1.

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