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Paraguay riled the Americas by impeaching its priest-cum-president, Fernando Lugo. One-time allies are giving it the boot from regional groups, and Standard and Poor's could cut its rating.
Editor's note: Updated with comments made Tuesday by the impeached president and his new decision not to attend a regional summit in Argentina.
LIMA, Peru — Paraguay’s out-of-the-blue impeachment of President Fernando Lugo is threatening to cast it as an international pariah.
South American governments, left and right, have now labeled the ouster undemocratic and a violation of due process. They are refusing to recognize the new administration headed by former Vice President Federico Franco. Some even have begun pulling out their ambassadors.
Lugo was fired from the presidency after a five-hour hearing on Friday over five charges of malfeasance in office, including his alleged role in the deaths of 17 people, nine of whom were police, in a botched eviction of impoverished land-squatters a week earlier.
The national senate voted 39-4, with two lawmakers absent, against the left-wing former Catholic bishop. The lower house had already voted 76-1 in favor of impeachment on Thursday.
Lugo’s lawyers had complained of being formally notified at 7 p.m. on Thursday to prepare a defense for noon the following day.
The former president, 61, had initially appeared to reluctantly accept the decision before hardening his position over the weekend, describing his trial as a “parliamentary coup” and vowing to return to power.
But on Tuesday, Lugo told Reuters in an interview, "Legally there's no way to reverse this situation. ... There's perhaps the possibility, by miracle, that parliament could say 'we've made a mistake, let's go back' ... but that seems impossible."
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In neighboring Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said: “Argentina will not condone this coup d’état that Paraguay has just committed.” Her Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, described the new government as “illegal and illegitimate.”
(Where's Paraguay? Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez points to the South American country on a map. Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images.)
Worryingly for the new administration in Asuncion, the conservative governments of Chile and Colombia adopted similar positions, while others, including the moderate government of regional powerhouse Brazil, expressed disapproval by calling their ambassadors home for consultations.
The South American trading bloc Mercosur has also now suspended Paraguay’s membership and has instead invited Lugo to attend a summit in Mendoza, Argentina, this week.
On Monday, Lugo had said he would attend but, the following day, he announced he had changed his mind and would not be going, the Associated Press reports.
Now, all eyes are on the United States to see what position the Obama administration adopts.
On Tuesday, the head of the Washington-based Organization of American States — which held negotiations with Honduras after the Central American country's 2009 congress-backed coup — said it cannot meddle in this affair.
Regional isolation could hit Paraguay’s tiny economy hard. The landlocked nation relies on ports in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay to send exports, including vast quantities of soy, to market.
Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service said Paraguay risks losing its “BB-/B” sovereign ratings over the impeachment.
Lugo’s stunning fall from grace follows four years in power during which he became increasingly alienated from his center-right allies.
On Friday, as he left the presidential palace, Lugo said: “It is not Fernando Lugo who receives this blow today. It is not Fernando Lugo who is sacked. It is Paraguayan history which has been deeply wounded.”
But the former cleric’s popularity had also dropped after he was hit in office with four different paternity claims from young women relating to his time as a Catholic bishop. Lugo has accepted two of them but denies the other two.
His election in 2008 marked the first time the right-wing Colorado Party had lost power in Paraguay in 61 years.
Known as the “bishop of the poor,” Lugo had campaigned on promises to redistribute land. Paraguay has some of the most uneven land ownership in the world, with roughly 2 percent of the population owning 80 percent of the land.
Although there are no official numbers, experts cite as many as 200,000 landless peasant farmers in the country and a similar number with some but not enough land.
That is partly a legacy of the colonial area when Spanish emigrants and their descendants built up huge plantations at a brutal cost to the area’s indigenous peoples.
The problem was then exacerbated during the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who gifted large areas to prominent supporters, friends and family members. It has now deepened further with a soy boom that has helped agricultural corporations turn Paraguay into the world’s third largest exporter of the bean.
Yet without a congressional majority, Lugo had made little progress in fulfilling his promise to give land to the landless. His accusers claimed his left-wing rhetoric had only emboldened the squatters into using violence.
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The charges against Lugo also included the alleged failure to develop a national security policy, according to the Americas Society, a US-based think-tank.
On Friday, there were scattered protests in the capital Asuncion, but they appeared to peter out as the evening wore on and the streets were largely deserted over the weekend.
After he was sworn in Friday, Franco said he’ll lead a transitional government until Paraguay’s April 2013 election, Bloomberg reports.
Franco, a former doctor, insisted the impeachment had been constitutional and said he would reach out to neighboring governments to explain the impeachment to them.
“There is no coup here, there is no insecurity, no military in the streets,” he told Paraguayan newspaper ABC. “The church, unanimously, has supported [the process], the same as the political parties.”
“The foreign minister will be in contact with the countries to show them with words rather than deeds our democratic vocation in favor of respecting the state and the right to freedom,” he added.
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