ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — President Fernando Lugo's rapid impeachment and ouster by lawmakers has plunged Paraguay into crisis and unleashed a wave of criticism by fellow leftist leaders in Latin America.
The former Roman Catholic bishop elected on a pledge to help Paraguay's poor said he would step aside following Friday's Senate vote to remove him from office, even though he called it a blow to democracy.
His quick acceptance of his ouster appeared to have prevented a bigger confrontation and potentially violent protests in the streets of Paraguay's capital of Asuncion, where his supporters had gathered. But other South American presidents were critical of the impeachment trial, which several called a de-facto coup d'etat.
"This goes beyond Fernando Lugo. It goes beyond Paraguay. It's about true democracy for all of our America," said Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa, adding that his government will not recognize any government in Paraguay other than Lugo's.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he won't recognize the "illegal and illegitimate government" that replaced Lugo either. Chavez said his ally "preferred the sacrifice" of stepping aside, and that the trial had been a setup.
In Argentina, the government of President Cristina Fernandez said it "is not going to validate the coup d'etat that just occurred" in Paraguay. Bolivian President Evo Morales also called it a coup.
Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno said "we are worried" that Lugo's ouster "did not fulfill the minimum standards of due process and the legitimate defense that any person deserves." He said his country would decide its position toward the new Paraguayan government in the coming days.
The rapid and negative reaction by many South American governments does not bode well for the international acceptance of newly sworn-in President Federico Franco.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also expressed concern. "These legal procedures shouldn't be used to abuse," Santos said at a news conference. "What we want is to help stability and democracy be maintained in Paraguay."
Santos said that on Thursday during the Rio+20 environmental summit in Brazil, presidents of the South American country grouping known as Unasur agreed to send their foreign ministers to Paraguay in hopes of halting Lugo's ouster so he could serve out his remaining eight months in power.
"But unfortunately that was not possible ... and Congress proceeded with a political trial to remove President Lugo from power," the Colombian president said. "We very much lament what has happened."
Mexico's foreign ministry said in a communique that although the process followed procedures laid out in Paraguay's constitution, "Mexico considers that said proceeding didn't grant ex-President Lugo the space or time for his defense."
Amid the criticism, Franco directed his foreign minister to try reach out to the region's governments.
"The foreign minister of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, said the situation in Paraguay is grave. Therefore we want to show that the political trial is a constitutional tool that is legal and legitimate," said Franco, who had been vice president under Lugo.
During the trial in the Senate, Lugo's supporters had massed in the streets facing off with riot police. But Lugo later went on national television to say he would step down.
"I say goodbye as president," a smiling Lugo said.
The Senate tried Lugo on five charges of malfeasance in office, including an alleged role in a deadly confrontation between police and landless farmers that left 17 dead.
After the five-hour trial, 39 senators voted to dismiss Lugo, while four senators voted against and two were absent.
It was a dramatic demise for the once-popular leader who previously had stepped down as a popular Roman Catholic "bishop of the poor" to run for the presidency amid a leftward swing in South America.
Lugo's removal after nearly four years in office highlighted his inability to find a balance with one-time allies who increasingly disapproved of his leftist policies and strident, uncompromising style. The trial came a day after Paraguay's lower house of Congress voted to impeach Lugo.
Crowds of pro-Lugo protesters took to the streets condemning the impeachment trial and expressing support for the president. When several dozen young protesters tried to break through a police barricade to reach Congress, police in anti-riot gear drove them back on horseback and using tear gas and water cannons.
Some protesters listened to the vote on speakers set up in the street, and booed lawmakers who voted for Lugo's dismissal. When the vote was over, some chanted "Lugo president!" Others wept. After Franco's swearing in, the crowd of protesters waned.
Franco, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, is now to serve out the rest of Lugo's term, which ends in August 2013. The 49-year-old Franco has political experience as a former state governor and at first had been part of a political alliance that supported Lugo.
Lugo decided not to attend the trial, instead watching on television from the presidential palace while his lawyers spoke on his behalf.
The Senate rejected a request by his lawyers for a period of 18 days to prepare their arguments. The Senate's president, Jorge Oviedo, said there were no grounds for such a request.
"I'm angry. More than because of the impeachment trial, because of the reaction of the Liberals who are celebrating as if they won elections," said protester Fiorella Galli. "The country is in a complete situation of insecurity and instability."
A smaller group of pro-Franco demonstrators gathered for a separate rally during the congressional proceedings, holding signs reading: "The trial is constitutional."
"I think Lugo had to go because he didn't do things well," said Carlos Solis, an engineer who said he thinks Franco will be a better president.
Lugo left the presidential palace on Friday as the military guard formally saw him off with a bugle tune.
The impoverished, landlocked nation has a long history of political instability. Some in Paraguay were initially concerned that the political showdown could spark street protests such as those that followed the 1999 assassination of Vice President Luis Maria Argana.
Some analysts said later that Lugo's quick acceptance likely avoided a more severe and potentially bloody crisis.
"He seems to have handled it very well, considering he had no real opportunity to mount a defense. So far his actions have probably prevented violence," said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "When all the dust settles, Paraguay will need to amend its impeachment procedures to assure a more transparent, orderly process. Presidential removal is an area where many Latin American constitutions are weak."
Lugo was elected four years ago on promises of agrarian reform to help the country's many poor and landless people, but his more moderate government allies have increasingly turned against him in recent years.
Lugo's impeachment trial was triggered in part by an attempt by police to evict about 150 farmers from a remote, 4,900-acre (2,000-hectare) forest reserve, which is part of a huge estate. Advocates for the farmers said the landowner, a politician, used political influence to get the land from the state decades ago, and say it should have been put to use for land reform.
Six police officers, including the brother of Lugo's chief of security, and 11 farmers died in the clash last week. Lugo's opponents blamed the president. Lugo had expressed sorrow at the confrontation and accepted the resignations of his interior minister and his chief of police.
The president also was tried on four other accusations, including that he improperly allowed leftist parties to hold a political meeting in an army base in 2009; that he allowed about 3,000 squatters to illegally invade a large Brazilian-owned soybean farm; that his government failed to capture members of a guerrilla group, the Paraguayan People's Army, which carries out extortion kidnappings and occasional attacks on police; and that he signed an international protocol without properly submitting it to Congress for approval.
Lugo's support had steadily eroded recently, while his opponents had grown stronger, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "It is hard to see the offenses leveled against him as anything but a pretext for removing an unpopular president," Shifter said.
"If presidents were ousted because of the reasons cited in this case, there would be few Latin American presidents left in office," he said. "The opposition simply didn't agree with Lugo's policies and didn't approve of the way he governed. As a result, the opposition manipulated the system, adhering to the letter of the law but departing from the principle of democracy."
Lugo's election in 2008 had ended 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, and he had regularly clashed with Congress, where he had few firm allies.
Lugo's relationship with Franco and the moderate Authentic Radical Liberal Party quickly deteriorated after he was elected with their support. His partners were upset after he gave a majority of Cabinet ministry posts to leftist allies, and handed a minority to the moderates.
Associated Press writers Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, and Ian James and Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.
- Politics & Government
- Fernando Lugo