Paraguay leader Lugo forced out

Sat, Jun 23, 2012, 01:00

Paraguay's Congress removed president Fernando Lugo from office last night after a lightning-quick impeachment that he said was tantamount to a coup but pledged to accept.

Mr Lugo, a silver-haired former Roman Catholic bishop who quit the Church to run for president, was found guilty of mishandling armed clashes over a land eviction in which 17 police and peasant farmers were killed last week.

Mr Lugo's election four years ago on promises he would champion the needs of poor Paraguayans raised high hopes in the landlocked, soy-exporting nation, but his reform agenda stalled due to the opposition's grip on Congress.

Political allies deserted him as criticism mounted over last week's bloodshed in the rural northeast, and the Senate voted 39-4 to oust him, a day after the lower house set the impeachment proceedings in motion.

"Although the law's been twisted like a fragile branch in the wind, I accept Congress's decision," Mr Lugo said in a sober address on national television, calling for calm among his supporters.

"Paraguay's history has been profoundly wounded," he said, moments before his centrist vice president and political opponent, Federico Franco, was sworn in to complete the last year of his presidency.

Several thousand of his supporters gathered outside Congress in the sleepy riverside capital, Asuncion, and tried to break through police lines as the verdict was given.

Police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The plaza later emptied out.

The unprecedented speed of the impeachment trial raised concerns among other governments in the region.

The leftist presidents of Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador announced they would not recognize Franco's government.

"What has happened is absolutely illegitimate," Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa told local television.

Argentine president Cristina Fernandez said her country would not "validate the coup" in Paraguay. She also said she was working with Brazil and Uruguay - partners in the Mercosur trade bloc, along with Paraguay - to respond jointly.

Some critics of Lugo's removal have compared it to the ousting of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 by that country's army, which acted on a court order that had backing from Congress.

Franco named a new foreign minister and charged him with explaining to governments elsewhere in South America that the impeachment drive was constitutional, albeit "a little quick."

Mr Lugo (61), vowed to improve the quality of life of low-income Paraguayans when his election ended six decades of rule by the Colorado party in one of South America's poorest and most politically unstable countries.

Paraguay is known regionally for its marijuana crops and as a hub for smuggling and money laundering.

Lugo's backers hoped he would tackle rampant corruption and gaping income inequalities in the nation of 6 million people.

He struggled, however, to push reforms including land redistribution to poor peasant farmers through Congress.

A cancer scare and several paternity scandals added to his difficulties and he lost support inside his ruling coalition, culminating in the Liberal Party's decision to turn against him and clear the way for his impeachment.

Reuters