Does Paraguay risk pariah status with president's ouster?

Ousted president Fernando Lugo denounced his removal as a 'parliamentary coup,' and hinted that domestic and international pressure could reverse his impeachment.

By , Associated Press

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    Paraguay's new President Federico Franco gives a thumbs up as he arrives to give a news conference at the presidential palace in Asuncion, Paraguay, Saturday. Paraguay's newly sworn in president is promising to honor foreign commitments and reach out to Latin American leaders after the Senate removed President Fernando Lugo from office in a rapid impeachment trial on Friday.
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Fernando Lugo emerged early Sunday to denounce his ouster as Paraguay's president as a "parliamentary coup" and a "foreordained sentence" that was not based on proper evidence.

Lugo said his truncated presidency was targeted because he tried to help the South American nation's poor majority. Asked whether he had any hope of retaking office, Lugo exhorted his followers to remain peaceful but suggested that popular national and international clamor could lead Paraguayan lawmakers to reverse his impeachment.

"In politics, anything is possible," Lugo said.

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He added that he was visited by Roman Catholic bishops before Friday's Senate trial for alleged poor performance of duties, and agreed to accept the outcome of a process he considered illegitimate only to avoid bloodshed.

Lugo spoke in a pre-dawn special televised "open microphone" program hosted by a state-funded public television channel that was created by his government. As Saturday turned into Sunday, a long line of speakers queued up in front of the station's headquarters to vent their frustration over what they called an institutional coup, calling for strikes and protests to demand his return.

"We will not recognize any other president," chanted the crowd of at least 200 people, waving Paraguayan flags and bundled up against the Southern Hemisphere winter.

The nighttime protest broke the quiet of an otherwise sleepy day when many shops were closed and streets were largely empty. Some alleged that the public station was being censored by the nascent government of Federico Franco, who took the oath of office the previous day.

Earlier Saturday, Mr. Franco set about forming his new government as he promised to honor foreign commitments, respect private property, and reach out to Latin American leaders to minimize diplomatic fallout and keep his country from becoming a regional pariah.

In a brief appearance before international journalists, Franco tried to broadcast a sense of normality a day after lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to kick Lugo out of office.

"The country is calm. I was elected [as vice president] in 2008 by popular vote. Activity is normal and there is no protest," Franco said.

His first two appointments were Interior Minister Carmelo Caballero, who will be tasked with maintaining public order in this poor, landlocked South American nation, and Foreign Minister Jose Felix Fernandez, who will immediately hit the road to try to appease fellow members of the Mercosur and Unasur regional trade blocs.

"Our foreign minister will go to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay to meet with authorities and explain to them that there was no break with democracy here. The transition of power through political trial is established in the national constitution," Franco said.

Ousted just a year before his term was over

The Paraguayan Senate voted 39-4 Friday to dismiss Lugo a little more than a year before his five-year term was to end, and Franco took the oath of office soon after. Lugo told reporters Saturday that he intends to remain in politics and is considering a possible run for a Senate seat in next year's elections.

Lugo's ouster drew swift condemnation around Latin America from leaders who called it a de facto coup, and several presidents said they would seek Paraguay's expulsion from regional groups.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner announced the withdrawal of her ambassador to Paraguay, citing "grave institutional events" and saying the embassy's No. 2 will remain in charge "until democratic order is re-established in that country."

The Cuban government said Saturday it wouldn't recognize the new government and called Lugo's removal a "parliamentary coup d'état executed against the constitutional President Fernando Lugo and the brother people of Paraguay."

Criticism came not just from the left but from conservative governments, too.

Chile said Lugo's removal "did not comply with the minimum standards of due process," and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said "legal procedures shouldn't be used to abuse. ... What we want is to help stability and democracy be maintained in Paraguay."

Will Paraguay be a pariah?

Given the tough talk, Franco could find mending fences to be a tall order.

"It looks terrible throughout the region," said analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. "[Lugo's ouster] doesn't look like a deliberative process, and what it looks like is that a president can be removed simply for being unpopular, or making unpopular decisions."

"The new government is going to be pretty isolated for the whole time that it's in power," Isacson said. "For Paraguay's neighbors and trade partners, I think there's probably not great cost involved in isolating the country for a year or more, and then re-recognizing whatever government is elected next year."

Example of Honduras

That would be a scenario similar to what played out in Honduras following the June 2009 ouster of Manuel Zelaya, which was also portrayed by those who took over as a legal, constitutional transition, even as it was denounced elsewhere.

Honduras's interim president was isolated by many Latin American governments, and his elected successor, Porfirio Lobo, only really won the good graces of some in 2011 after Venezuela's Hugo Chavez brokered a reconciliation deal with Zelaya.

"President Franco surely believed himself to be capable of governing, that's why he accepted the presidency through the coup-by-political-trial," Lugo said. "His government will have to resist the blockade that is being announced in the countries of the region."

Lugo resigned as a Roman Catholic bishop to run for president in 2008 against the wishes of Pope Benedict XVI, who grudgingly accepted the resignation when it became clear Lugo would not be dissuaded.

On Saturday, the Vatican's envoy to Paraguay stopped short of recognizing the new government but expressed satisfaction there has been little unrest other than some confrontations between Lugo supporters and police during the Senate trial.

"I am very pleased that the people and authorities have thought of the good of the country, which is to keep giving one's best for the fatherland," envoy Antonio Ariotti said, adding that he would read a message from the Vatican in the evening.

The German ambassador was also seen visiting the presidential palace.

"We will continue as normal with all cooperation agreements with Paraguay. We see the process of change happening within the laws and the constitution, because no parliament makes a coup d'état," Ambassador Claude Robert Ellner.

The U.S. State Department urged "all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay's democratic principles."

At Lugo's home in a quiet residential neighborhood of Asuncion, a close political ally said the former priest would not be making any comment Saturday.

Lugo was in good spirits, had spoken by phone the previous night with leaders like Chavez, and was now focused on moving his things out of the presidential residence with the help of his nephews, said Sen. Alberto Grillon, one of the four to back Lugo in Friday's vote.

Lugo had locked horns with a virulent opposition from the beginning of his term in 2008. He was criticized by some as being unyielding and unwilling to compromise; meanwhile Paraguay's powerful elite, long accustomed to getting their way during 61 years of Colorado single-party rule, fought Lugo's attempts to raise taxes on the country's No. 1 export soy and redistribute farmland to the poor majority.

There had been talk of impeaching Lugo in the past, but never enough support in Congress. Ultimately, a deadly forest clash between police and landless protesters cost Lugo all but a handful of votes in both legislative houses, setting the stage for his rapid removal.

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