Paraguay president faces impeachment trial

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguayan lawmakers voted to impeach President Fernando Lugo for his role in a deadly clash involving landless farmers and announced the former Roman Catholic bishop’s impeachment 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 he would resign and vowed to face the trial “with all its consequences.”

The lower house voted to 76-1 on Thursday to impeach the president and hours later the Senate announced it will begin his impeachment trial on Friday.

The vote added to the political turmoil in the poor, landlocked country with a history of political instability and prompted frightened residents of the capital, Asuncion, to shutter businesses and pull children from school. Hospitals were put on alert, freeing up beds, in the face of possible violence.

Paraguayans were unnerved by the looming showdown in the opposition-controlled Senate and the possibility it could spark 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. His election was seen as being part of South America’s leftward swing. If ousted, Lugo would be replaced by Vice President Federico Franco.

Critics blame Lugo for the violence that erupted last week when police tried to evict about 150 farmers from the 4,900-acre 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 it to use for land reform.

Seventeen people died in the clash.

Lugo, 63, has expressed sorrow at the confrontation and accepted the resignations of his interior minister and his chief of police.

On the streets of the Paraguayan capital, opinions about the impeachment effort were mixed.

“Lugo should finish his mandate and afterward we will elect someone who belongs to us,” said Benito Canete, a 68-year-old concierge in an apartment building. “I think that if they get rid of him now it will be bad for the country.”

Socialist Carlos Filzzola, who until Saturday was Lugo’s interior minister, called the 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.

Paraguay is the world’s No. 4 supplier of soybeans and land disputes have risen in recent years as farmers seek more land to grow the crop, which is the country’s top export earner.

Lugo, who resigned as a bishop to run for the presidency, had promised farmland for 87,000 landless families. But as he nears the end of his term next year, he has failed to deliver, partly because his programs have been blocked in the legislature.

Lugo is still backed by some farmworker groups, including several whose leaders said they wanted to travel to the capital to demonstrate their support.

On Thursday, Lugo urged lawmakers to do all they can to avoid an impeachment trial, warning it could be resisted by many citizens who back him and it could put them on the wrong side of history.

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 17 million acres ended up in the hands of just 1,877 people, according to a 2004 government study.

In 1999, the assassination of Vice President Argana deepened a political clash and led to demonstrations calling for President Raul Cubas Grau of the Colorado Party to be tried for Argana’s killing. Seven demonstrators died in a confrontation with government forces, leading to Cubas’ resignation.

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