Paraguay leader tries to quell diplomatic fallout

Associated Press Modified: June 23, 2012 at 8:45 pm •  Published: June 23, 2012
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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.

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