Paraguay back in regional fold after presidential vote

Paraguay's neighbors Monday congratulated tobacco tycoon Horacio Cartes for his presidential election victory, ending the country's regional isolation after the president's controversial impeachment last year.

Cartes's victory raised hopes for better days in a nation plagued by poverty and corruption, while Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and other Latin American nations, as well as the United States, welcomed his win.

The election also marks the return of the conservative Colorado Party, which ruled Paraguay for 60 years until leftist former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo was elected in 2008.

Lugo was impeached in June 2012, over his handling of a deadly land dispute, a move that several regional governments denounced as a "legislative coup" by the conservative assembly. He was replaced by his vice president, Liberal politician Federico Franco.

A mostly rural country of 6.5 million bordered by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, Paraguay was suspended from the Mercosur trade bloc and the Unasur group of South American nations.

Cartes pledged to put "every effort" into normalizing relations with Mercosur partners.

"We will do everything possible to return to Mercosur," he told a news conference, adding that he would ask the assembly to finally approve Venezuela's accession into the group.

Venezuela was made a full member of Mercosur at a June 2012 summit, the same day that Paraguay was suspended from the bloc.

But Peru and Chile were the latest governments to congratulate Cartes on Monday following the well-wishes of fellow Mercosur members Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Uruguay.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called Cartes to congratulate him and expressed her "willingness to mend bilateral relations and those between Paraguay and Mercosur," her office said.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica invited Paraguay to attend the bloc's next summit in Montevideo in June while Argentine leader Cristina Kirchner wrote on Twitter: "We await you in Mercosur."

The 56-year-old political novice -- whose businesses include banks, a champion football team, soybeans and currency exchanges -- was elected Sunday with 45.8 percent of the vote, compared to 37 percent for his nearest rival, Liberal politician Efrain Alegre.

Cartes, who will take office on August 15, said voters had trusted him with "enormous hope" after a "great disappointment."

"He's a new candidate. He gives us hope," said Maria Franco, 30, who runs a food stand and was drinking terere, a cold herbal infusion made with yerba mate.

Cartes has a tough task ahead, with growing crime, corruption at all levels of society and 40 percent of the population living in poverty.

The head of the Libertad football team, the national champion, was accused by his rivals of being involved in cigarette smuggling and links with drug trafficking.