ASUNCION (AP) ― Paraguayan lawmakers voted to impeach President Fernando Lugo for his role in a deadly clash involving landless farmers and announced that the former Roman Catholic bishop’s trial would begin on Friday in the Senate.
Lugo, who was elected four years ago on promises that he would help the South American country’s poor, went on national television to dismiss rumors that he would resign and vowed to face the trial “with all its consequences.”
The lower house voted 76-1 on Thursday to impeach the president. Hours later the Senate announced that it will begin his trial on Friday.
In Paraguay, a poor, landlocked country with a history of political instability, the vote prompted frightened residents in the capital, Asuncion, to shutter businesses and pull children out of schools. Hospitals were put on alert, freeing up beds in case of possible violence.
|Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo speaks at a news conference in Asuncion on Thursday. (Xinhua-Yonhap News)|
Paraguayans were unnerved by the possibility that the looming showdown in the opposition-controlled Senate could spark violent street protests such as those that followed the March 1999 assassination of Vice President Luis Maria Argana.
“We are not going to escape turbulence, it’s coming,” said Paraguayan political analyst Horacio Galeano Perrone, who specializes in national defense issues. “If you were to ask me, I’d tell you to go to the supermarket and buy batteries, buy everything.”
Lugo’s election in 2008 ended 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, and he has constantly clashed with Congress, where he has few firm allies.
Socialist Carlos Filizzola, who until recently was Lugo’s interior minister, called the impeachment vote by lawmakers an “institutional coup” and said he thought the president’s fate had already been decided.
“The political trial is a formality,” he said.
If ousted, Lugo would be replaced by Vice President Federico Franco. Franco, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, “is ready to assume command and pacify the country,” said Liberal lawmaker Enrique Sallim Buzarquis.
It would be a sharp fall for the once-popular leader who stepped down as the Catholic “bishop of the poor” to run for the presidency amid a leftward swing in South America. Once in office, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and was hounded by paternity scandals.
But the fall in Lugo’s popularity arises largely from his failure to enact agrarian reform and his resulting loss of support by farmers and peasant groups, said Galeano Perrone, the analyst.
“The true problem is the lack of agrarian reform,” he said. “We are facing a social explosion and a rural explosion.”
Paraguay’s land ownership problems stretch back nearly 140 years to a war Paraguay lost to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Saddled with crushing war debt, Paraguay began selling off government holdings that amounted to 95 percent of the country, with the most fertile parcels going to political cronies.
Privatizations accelerated under the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and into the early 1990s, when about 7 million hectares ended up in the hands of just 1,877 people, according to a 2004 government study.
Paraguay is now the world’s No. 4 supplier of soybeans and land disputes have risen as farmers seek more land to grow the crop, which is the country’s top export earner.
“Lugo isn’t fulfilling his main election promise of carrying out agrarian reform but it is not his fault. The fault lies with a judicial system that blocks all attempts to expropriate land in the hands of foreigners or to recover formerly state land that was given to supporters of the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner,” said Belarmino Balbuena, leader of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement.
Lugo was elected in 2008 with 41 percent of the vote, but his party lacked clear legislative majorities and he had to strike deals with opponents to govern. As his popularity fell and the latest scandal erupted, the alliances unraveled and he was left without support.
The trigger for the current impeachment was an attempt by police to evict about 150 farmers from a remote, 2,000-hectare reserve, which is part of a huge estate owned by a Colorado Party politician. Advocates for the farmers say the landowner used political influence to get the land from the state decades ago, and say it should have been put to use for land reform.
Seventeen people died in the clash and many people blamed Lugo.