ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguay’s new center-right president swore in his cabinet on Monday as neighboring nations intensified diplomatic pressure over the sudden impeachment of his leftist predecessor, Fernando Lugo.
Federico Franco took office on Friday, moments after Lugo - a former Roman Catholic bishop - was ousted by the opposition-controlled Congress in an impeachment hearing that lasted less than six hours.
Lugo’s sudden ouster a year from the end of his term has drawn strong criticism and diplomatic sanctions from many governments in a region scarred by coups and political instability in the 1970s and 1980s.
They want to send a stern warning about the consequences of removing a democratically elected leader, even if Lugo’s chances of returning to power appear remote.
Lugo initially said he accepted Congress’s decision, prompting some governments to recognize Franco’s administration. He has taken a tougher line, however, as regional pressure mounts on Franco - Lugo’s former vice president and one of his harshest critics.
On Monday, Lugo compared himself to former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in 2009 by the army on the basis of a court order that had backing from Congress.
Senator Carlos Filizzola, a close Lugo ally and former interior minister, said “re-establishing democratic order means that President Lugo, who was elected legally and legitimately ... returns to the post that is rightfully his.”
Franco held his first cabinet meeting on Monday and the president of Congress, Jorge Oviedo Matto, shrugged off the international pressure and said the change of government was “irreversible” and in line with the constitution.
Franco’s administration has been banned from attending a summit this week of the Mercosur trade bloc, which also groups Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and many countries have called back their ambassadors, permanently or for consultations.
Lugo will take part in the gathering and officials say Paraguay could be suspended from the bloc and the UNASUR group of South American nations will meet on Friday during the Mercosur summit in Mendoza, Argentina, to discuss the crisis.
Germany said Europe was watching events in the landlocked soy-exporting nation with concern, while U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was “quite concerned about the speed of the process used for this impeachment.”
“(The impeachment) appears to have tracked process, but the concerns that we have to do with the speed and whether there was due process,” she added.
Despite the chorus of international criticism, Paraguay’s quiet riverside capital has been calm with only a few low-key demonstrations in support of Lugo’s reinstatement.
The country’s electoral tribunal said Lugo’s impeachment was carried out within the constitution and that the next presidential election would go ahead as planned next year.
Analysts say uncertainty will likely linger in the impoverished and historically unstable nation sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil.
“There’s no script here. Lugo doesn’t know the way out of this situation either,” said local consultant Jose Carlos Rodriguez. “We need to find a dignified, honorable way out for both sides. Today, there’s no exit in sight.”
Lugo’s removal was triggered by clashes that killed six police and 11 peasant farmers during a land eviction earlier this month.
Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in South America and Lugo, 61, vowed to improve the quality of life of low-income families when his election ended six decades of rule by the conservative Colorado party.
But he struggled to push reforms, including land redistribution to poor peasant farmers, through Congress. A cancer scare and several paternity scandals dating back to his time as a bishop added to his difficulties.
When his allies from the Liberal Party formally withdrew support for him on Thursday, they cleared the way for the impeachment trial.
Franco named economist Manuel Ferreira as economy minister and said Jorge Corvalan would stay on at the central bank.
Additional reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima, Didier Cristaldo in Asuncion and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by M.D. Golan