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Paraguay neighbours cut ties over 'coup'

Paraguay has found itself increasingly isolated from its regional partners over Sunday's dismissal of President Fernando Lugo, with allies suspending its membership in the Mercosur trade bloc and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez announcing cuts in fuel sales.


AP - Paraguay’s new government battled a wave of criticism on Sunday as several of the nation’s closest allies condemned the dismissal of President Fernando Lugo by lawmakers, some calling it a congressional coup.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his government will cut off fuel sales to the poor South American country. Venezuela had become a key supplier to Paraguay as Chavez built close ties with Lugo, a moderate leftist.

Argentina’s Foreign Ministry announced Sunday that Paraguay had been suspended from the Mercosur trade bloc, issuing a joint resolution by member nations expressing “their most energetic condemnation of the rupture of democratic order” in Paraguay.

The statement also said Paraguay would be suspended from a Mercosur summit to start Monday in Mendoza, Argentina.

Earlier Sunday, former Vice President Federico Franco, who was sworn in as Paraguay’s president following Lugo’s ouster Friday, had said newly appointed Foreign Minister Jose Felix Fernandez would represent Paraguay at the Mendoza summit, with heads of state gathering there on Thursday.

“He will take charge of seeking to solve the discrepancies with countries that are our neighbors and friends,” Franco said after attending Sunday Mass.

Lugo had also said earlier Sunday that he planned to attend the summit and would even hand over the rotating presidency of Mercosur to Peru next week, months before it is due to switch in November.

“I will not collaborate with Franco’s government because it is bogus. It has no legitimacy,” Lugo said. Earlier he denounced his ouster as a “parliamentary coup.”

Two of his Cabinet ministers also announced the establishment of an alternative continuation government to attend to matters of state Monday.

“President Lugo will be with his ministers to take decisions and then inform what those determinations were,” said Augusto Dos Santos, Lugo’s minister of social communication.

It was an apparent reversal from days earlier when Lugo said he would respect the outcome of his Senate trial.

Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, said early Sunday that Roman Catholic bishops visited him before Friday’s Senate trial, and he told them he agreed to accept the outcome of a process he considered illegitimate only to avoid bloodshed.

All three other full Mercosur members reacted with alarm to Lugo’s removal, denouncing the fact that the Senate’s impeachment trial lasted just five hours, giving the president little time to mount a defense. Brazil and Argentina announced they were calling their ambassadors home and Uruguay also expressed concern.

Chavez announced Venezuela also was pulling its envoy. “We do not recognize this government,” he said, calling Lugo’s ouster a “coup.”

Chavez’s decision to cut oil shipments could hurt Paraguay, which has received increasing quantities of Venezuelan oil since 2004. Paraguay currently owes Venezuela’s state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA nearly $300 million, out of about $400 million in total debts to oil suppliers. Paraguay’s new government downplayed the Argentine announcement, noting that the last ambassador, Rafael Roma, had already left three months ago after finishing his diplomatic assignment.

Lugo was elected four years ago, ending 61 years of rule by the conservative Colorado Party, on promises of agrarian reform to help the country’s many poor and landless people, but his allies increasingly turned against him in recent years.

Ultimately, a deadly clash between police and landless protesters cost Lugo all but a handful of votes in both legislative houses.

Police were attempting to evict about 150 farmers from a remote forest reserve that is part of a large estate. Six police officers, including the brother of Lugo’s chief of security, and 11 farmers died in this month’s clash.

Lugo’s opponents blamed the president. Advocates for the farmers say the landowner, a politician, had used his influence to get the land from the state decades ago, and say it should have been put to use for land reform.

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 let about 3,000 squatters illegally invade a large Brazilian-owned soybean farm; that his government failed to capture members of a guerrilla group, and that he signed an international protocol without properly submitting it to Congress for approval.

Lugo said his truncated presidency was targeted because he tried to help the South American nation’s poor majority. Asked whether he had any hope of retaking office, Lugo exhorted his followers to remain peaceful but suggested that national and international clamor could lead Paraguayan lawmakers to reverse his impeachment.

“In politics, anything is possible,” Lugo said.

Franco is set to serve out the rest of Lugo’s term, which ends in August 2013. His government has been recognized by Germany, Canada and Spain.

Late Saturday, a crowd of protesters waved flags in the capital and chanted: “We will not recognize any other president!”

In calling its ambassador home for consultations, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the “Brazilian government condemns the summary removal of the Paraguayan president ... during which the right to a full defense was not assured.”

It said the process “compromises a fundamental pillar of democracy, an essential condition for regional integration,” and that Brazil was evaluating what actions to take with its partners in Mercosur and Unasur.

It added that Brazil would do nothing to “harm the people of Paraguay,” suggesting that it may not intend to cut off economic partnerships with its much poorer neighbor.

Franco said Fernandez, the foreign minister, would try to win back the support of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

“There was no break with democracy here. The transition of power through political trial is established in the national constitution,” Franco said.

The U.S. State Department has urged “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles.” It has not said whether the U.S. will recognize the new government.


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