Paraguay's president ousted in impeachment trial

Associated Press Modified: June 22, 2012 at 10:00 pm •  Published: June 22, 2012

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguay's Senate removed President Fernando Lugo from office in a rapid impeachment trial on Friday, and the leftist former priest said he was stepping aside even though he considered his ouster a blow to democracy.

Vice President Federico Franco was promptly sworn in as president after tense hours during which Lugo's supporters massed in the streets facing off with riot police. The outgoing president, who was elected on pledges of helping the poor, averted the potential for a bigger conflict by appearing on television and saying he would comply with the Senate's vote.

"I say goodbye as president," a smiling and gracious Lugo said shortly after the Senate vote. He said, however, that Paraguay's democracy "has been deeply wounded."

Franco, who had parted ways with Lugo in recent years, triumphantly donned the presidential sash and declared: "At this time, God and destiny wanted me to assume the presidency."

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."

Afterward, Lugo left the presidential palace as the military guard formally saw him off with a bugle tune.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he won't recognize the "illegal and illegitimate government" that replaced Lugo. Speaking to reporters in Caracas, Chavez said his ally "preferred the sacrifice" of stepping aside, and that the trial had been a setup.

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, said his government also wouldn't recognize any government in Paraguay other than Lugo's.

"This goes beyond Fernando Lugo. It goes beyond Paraguay. It's about true democracy for all of our America," Correa said on television.

As flag-waving protesters took to the streets in Asuncion before the trial, many schools shut down and shops closed their doors as a precaution.

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.

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