Paraguay under fire after impeachment

Reuters, ASUNCION

Mon, Jun 25, 2012 - Page 7

Paraguay’s neighbors and key trading partners are taking it to task for the unprecedented speed with which the opposition-dominated Paraguayan Congress removed former president Fernando Lugo on Friday, saying he had failed to fulfill his duties to maintain social harmony.

A former Roman Catholic bishop, Lugo was a year away from completing his five-year term. He decried the two-day impeachment trial, but accepted the decision, stepped down and told supporters any protests should be peaceful.

Lugo spoke to reporters outside his home on Saturday night, saying he was toppled by a “a congressional coup” and that Paraguay was now facing isolation.

Paraguay’s new president, Federico Franco, said he would ask his impeached predecessor to help quell regional tensions.

Franco had been Lugo’s vice president, but they often clashed and Franco’s Liberal Party withdrew its support for Lugo last week, paving the way for the swift impeachment trial.

“I’m going to speak with him myself,” Franco, a 49-year-old doctor, said on Saturday.

He was sworn in on Friday shortly after Lugo was ousted.

The impeachment was sparked by clashes that killed 17 police and peasant farmers during a recent land eviction. Critics of the process complained Lugo’s lawyers had only a few hours to defend him in the Paraguayan Senate, which voted 39 to 4 in favor of his removal.

Argentina ordered the immediate withdrawal of its ambassador from Paraguay on Saturday due to “rupture of the democratic order.”

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has called the move a coup and warned that South American trade bloc Mercosur could take measures against Paraguay. In theory, that could include suspension from the group, which includes Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

Brazil on Saturday called its ambassador in Paraguay home for consultations. It “condemned” Lugo’s removal because he was not able to defend himself properly, “compromising a fundamental pillar of democracy.”

Brazil is Paraguay’s top trading partner and Latin America’s biggest economy. Its stance will likely carry the most weight, but it says it will seek consensus with other South American nations rather than act unilaterally.

Latin America’s more radical left-wing governments have led the protests with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua and Argentina saying they would not recognize the new government and vowing to lobby for sanctions against it.

Peru and Mexico also questioned the speed of the process to remove Lugo from office, although Mexico recognized the legality of the impeachment.

Franco said he would work to convince Argentina to reinstate its ambassador and would explain to other governments in the region that the impeachment was legal.

“[Lugo] recognized he faced a tribunal, he recognized the tribunal’s verdict and finally he agreed to step down. Even more importantly, he asked for people to remain peaceful so no more blood would be shed,” Franco said. “At no time was there a rupture or a coup, there was simply a change of leadership in line with the constitution and the country’s laws.”

Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in South America and Lugo, now 61, vowed to improve the quality of life of low-income families when he was elected. However, he struggled to push reforms, including land redistribution to poor peasant farmers, through the Paraguayan Congress.

While many Latin American countries are unhappy with the lightning-fast impeachment, analysts say they are unlikely to force the issue if Lugo himself does not fight to be restored.

“Neighboring countries can refuse to recognize the new government, complicate negotiations or end cooperation. But I don’t think they will fight for this very hard,” said Milda Rivarola, a Paraguayan historian and political analyst.