Paraguay leader tries to quell diplomatic fallout

June 23, 2012 - 9:47 PM
APTOPIX Paraguay Lugo

The presidential chair sits empty before the start of a news conference by Paraguay's new President Federico Franco at the presidential palace in Asuncion, Paraguay, Saturday, June 23, 2012. Former President Fernando Lugo's ouster by lawmakers on Friday has been widely condemned in Latin America as Franco is promising to honor foreign commitments and reach out to Latin American leaders to try to keep his country from becoming a regional pariah. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguay's newly sworn-in president set about forming a new government Saturday 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, Federico Franco tried to broadcast a sense of normality a day after lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to kick President Fernando 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.

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.

"Without doubt it is a coup, a parliamentary coup, a coup against the citizenry and democracy, and we have to shout that to the four winds," Lugo said.

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'etat 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."

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."

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' 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.

Many shops were closed and streets were quiet Saturday, but the calm was broken at night by a protest at a public television station created by Lugo's administration. About 200 people shouted "no to censorship, no to repression," and demanded the station be allowed to continue to operate independently of the Franco government's interests.

"We are here to defend public television so it continues to be public, not part of a government and much less an illegitimate one that rose from a criminal maneuver," protester Ricardo Zarratea.

Local media reported allegations that Franco's communications advisor showed up at the station Friday and demanded the programming schedule. The director of Television Publica resigned hours after Lugo was ousted.

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'etat," 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 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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Associated Press writers Pedro Servin in Asuncion and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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