ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Fernando Lugo emerged early Sunday to denounce his ouster as Paraguay‘s president as a “parliamentary coup” and a “foreordained sentence” that was not based on proper evidence.
Mr. 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, Mr. Lugo exhorted his followers to remain peaceful but suggested that national and international clamor could lead Paraguayan lawmakers to reverse his impeachment.
He also said that Roman Catholic bishops visited him before Friday’s Senate trial for alleged poor performance of duties, and he agreed to accept the outcome of a process he considered illegitimate only to avoid bloodshed.
Mr. Lugo spoke in a pre-dawn special televised “open microphone” program hosted by a state-funded public television channel that was created by his government. As Saturday turned into Sunday, a long line of speakers queued up in front of the station’s headquarters to vent their frustration over what they called an institutional coup, calling for strikes and protests to demand his return.
“We will not recognize any other president,” chanted the crowd of at least 200 people waving Paraguayan flags and bundled up against the Southern Hemisphere winter.
The nighttime protest followed an otherwise sleepy day, when many shops were closed and streets were largely empty. Some alleged that the public station was being censored by the nascent government of Federico Franco.
Mr. Franco was sworn in after Mr. Lugo’s ouster on Friday and set about forming his new government 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 on Saturday, Mr. Franco tried to broadcast a sense of normality.
“The country is calm. I was elected (as vice president) in 2008 by popular vote. Activity is normal, and there is no protest,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Franco said.
The Paraguayan Senate voted 39-4 to dismiss Mr. Lugo a little more than a year before his five-year term was to end. Mr. 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.
Mr. Lugo‘s ouster drew swift condemnation around Latin America from leaders who called the impeachment trial, which lasted less than a day, a de facto coup. Several presidents said they would seek Paraguay‘s expulsion from regional groups.
Regional heavyweight Brazil said late Saturday that its ambassador to Paraguay was called back to Brasilia for consultations.
A Foreign Ministry statement said the “Brazilian government condemns the summary removal of the Paraguayan president … during which the right to a full defense was not assured.”
It said that the process “compromises a fundamental pillar of democracy, an essential condition for regional integration” and that President Dilma Rousseff was evaluating what actions to take with its Mercosur and Unasur partners. 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.
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner also 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.”
Cuba said Saturday it wouldn’t recognize the new government.
Criticism came not just from the left, but from conservative governments, too.
Chile said Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.
Honduras’ interim president was isolated by many Latin American governments, and his elected successor, Porfirio Lobo, only won the good graces of some in 2011 after Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez brokered a reconciliation deal with Mr. Zelaya.
Mr. Lugo resigned as a Roman Catholic bishop to run for president in 2008 against the wishes of Pope Benedict XVI, who grudgingly accepted the resignation when it became clear Mr. Lugo would not be dissuaded.
On Saturday, the Vatican’s envoy to Paraguay stopped short of recognizing the new government but expressed satisfaction there has been little unrest other than some confrontations between Lugo supporters and police during the Senate trial.
German Ambassador Claude Robert Ellner visited the presidential palace and said his country “will continue as normal with all cooperation agreements with Paraguay. We see the process of change happening within the laws and the constitution, because no parliament makes a coup d’etat.”
The U.S. State Department urged “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay‘s democratic principles.”
Mr. Lugo was in good spirits, had spoken by phone the previous night with leaders such as Mr. Chavez, and was now focused on moving his things out of the presidential residence with the help of his nephews, said Sen. Alberto Grillon, one of the four to back Mr. Lugo in Friday’s vote.
Mr. Lugo had locked horns with a virulent opposition from the beginning of his term in 2008. He was criticized by some as being unyielding and unwilling to compromise. Meanwhile, Paraguay‘s powerful elite, long accustomed to getting its way during 61 years of Colorado Party rule, fought Mr. Lugo’s attempts to raise taxes on the country’s No. 1 export, soy, and redistribute farmland to the poor majority.
There had been talk of impeaching Mr. Lugo in the past, but there was never enough support in Congress. Ultimately, a deadly forest clash between police and landless protesters cost Mr. Lugo all but a handful of votes in both legislative houses, setting the stage for his rapid removal.
Associated Press writers Pedro Servin and Belen Bogado in Asuncion and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.