ASUNCION: Paraguay’s new president said on Saturday he would ask his impeached predecessor to help quell regional tensions after Argentina withdrew its ambassador in protest at what it said was a coup and Brazil recalled its top diplomat for consultations.
South American neighbours and key trading partners are taking Paraguay to task for the unprecedented speed with which the opposition-dominated Congress removed President Fernando Lugo on Friday, saying he had failed to fulfil his duties to maintain social harmony.
A silver-haired leftist and 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.
The new president, Federico Franco, said he planned to speak to Lugo to try to help ease tensions with neighbouring countries. “I think he is the key to decompressing (the situation).”
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 in an interview with Reuters 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 Senate, which voted 39-4 in favour of his removal.
A landlocked, soy-exporting country of 6 million people, Paraguay has a long history of instability and military rule.
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 also brings together 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 within the UNASUR group of 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 recognised the legality of the impeachment.
Despite the wave of international criticism, Paraguay’s capital Asuncion felt oddly normal on Saturday with businesses open as usual and few police officers patrolling the streets a day after they clashed briefly with protesters outside Congress.
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) recognised he faced a tribunal, he recognised 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 his election ended six decades of rule by the Colorado party. But he struggled to push reforms, including land redistribution to poor peasant farmers, through Congress.
A cancer scare and several paternity scandals dating back to his time as a bishop added to his difficulties.
While many Latin American countries are unhappy with the lightning-fast impeachment, analysts say they are unlikely to force the issue if Lugo himself doesn’t fight to be restored.
“Neighbouring countries can refuse to recognise 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.