Ousted leader hopes to regain power in Paraguay
ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Ousted Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo said Monday that he is aiming to return to power and will rally allies at home and abroad after a landslide congressional vote forced him from office in what he called a break with democracy.
Lugo has symbolically created a parallel Cabinet, attacking the legitimacy of the government that replaced him, and told reporters he will seek to plead his case on the international stage at this week's summit of the Mercosur trade bloc in Mendoza, Argentina. Lugo said he would also challenge the new leaders over Paraguay's role in a broader alliance of South American nations.
He also called on domestic backers, who so far have been relatively quiet, to turn up the pressure.
"I want to resist until we regain power because here there was a parliamentary coup," he said Monday morning after meeting with aides at a left-leaning party's headquarters in the capital. "I call on people from the countryside, the youth and all citizens to resist until we are back in the office we unfairly had to leave."
Meanwhile, aides to former Vice President Federico Franco, who was installed as president on Friday after lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to dismiss Lugo, condemned a Mercosur resolution preventing his new government from attending the summit. Franco's new foreign minister, Jose Felix Fernandez, noted that Paraguay has not been expelled outright from the group that also includes neighboring Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
"We reject Mercosur's decision to suspend us from the right to attend the Mercosur meetings, but I would like to make clear that Paraguay is not out of the bloc," Fernandez said. He said it was a measure "for just one meeting, and Paraguay continues to have the pro-tem presidency of the Union of South American Nations," another regional group, known as Unasur.
But Lugo has said he intends to hand over Unasur's rotating presidency to Peru this week, months before it is scheduled to change hands in November. Peru's Foreign Ministry said leaders of Unasur countries will meet Friday to take up the issue.
Congress booted Lugo out of office in fast-track proceedings last week triggered by a clash between police and landless protesters in which 17 people died. The Senate found him guilty of poor performance of his duties, citing a clause in the constitution that leaves wide room for congressional interpretation. Franco was tapped to serve out the remainder of Lugo's term, until August 2013.
After saying last week that he would honor the outcome, however, Lugo has reversed course.
"I accepted my removal only to avoid greater evils for the country and avoid violence against protesters in the plaza" in front of Congress, Lugo said Monday. He left the government palace three days ago and has been staying at his home on the outskirts of Asuncion.
"It's impossible for Lugo to return to power because the sovereign and autonomous decision of Congress is irreversible. It doesn't allow for appeal because it was a political process, not a judicial one," Eusebio Ayala, a lawyer for Franco, told reporters. "What's more, Lugo himself announced to the world that he accepted his dismissal as he left the government palace."
The Supreme Court on Monday denied a request by Lugo to overturn the Senate trial that removed him from office. Military officials also said they would not intervene.
So far, local support of Lugo has been restrained. A few thousand people demonstrated outside Congress last week, and a smaller group turned out for a weekend protest.
An "open-microphone" demonstration where citizens have been speaking out against Lugo's ouster stretched into its third night Monday. This time, at least 100 people from the countryside traveled to the capital to take part.
"Not just anyone can come to speak here. To speak here one must have high morals and not be afraid," said Nelson Riveros of San Pedro, the impoverished rural province where Lugo for years was bishop.
"The people do not legitimize this government," Riveros said. "The struggle continues, companeros!"
Some Lugo supporters accused Franco's government of being responsible for a half-hour outage of TV Publica, the public TV station that's organized and broadcast the open-microphone rallies. Officials blamed an electricity shutoff for maintenance scheduled before the impeachment.
TV Publica set up a second microphone in a nearby square for people on the other side of the conflict.
"We exhort the international community to respect our sovereignty and our right to self-determination," said Sebastian Daponte. "We the Paraguayan people will resolve our internal problems."
The most strenuous reaction has come from Paraguay's neighbors.
Presidents of the Mercosur bloc have said they will consider the political crisis this week and mull whether to take further action, though several regional governments, including Brazil and Chile, said they will do nothing that would hurt the people of Paraguay, suggesting economic measures against the impoverished, landlocked South American nation may not be on the table.
"As a Paraguayan, I want the best for the country. May there be no economic blockade — we would all lose," he said in the evening after meeting with union and social groups who back him.
But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Lugo ally, announced the suspension of diesel sales to Paraguay.
Franco met on Monday with Paraguayan petroleum providers to evaluate the impact of the loss, and was told that Venezuela provides about one-third of the fuel consumed in the country.
"We told the president that the Venezuelan decision will not affect our market," said fuel importer Juan Jose Zapag. "We will surely cover the demand with other sellers."
Zapag said Venezuela does not actually ship the diesel to Paraguay, but instead finances a Paraguay company to purchase the fuel. He added that if Venezuela cuts off those funds, by contract it would be unable to collect a $260 million debt owed by Paraguayan oil company Petropar.
Franco's newly installed government has also been trying to counter growing diplomatic repercussions. Ambassadors have been called home for consultations by the governments of Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Peru.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials "remain quite concerned about the speed of the process used for this impeachment in Paraguay."
Asked if the U.S. government considers it a coup, she said: "We have not so designated it at this point."
Nuland said that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke over the weekend with Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, and that the region's countries plan to discuss the events in Paraguay at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington on Tuesday.
The State Department confirmed that Lugo, at his request, met with the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay on Thursday, the day of his impeachment, but without divulging the content of their discussion.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Asuncion, Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile, Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.