New Paraguayan president fights 'coup' criticisms

Paraguay's newly sworn-in president set about forming a new government Saturday as he promised to honour 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, Federico Franco tried to broadcast a sense of normalcy a day after the country's Senate overwhelmingly voted to kick President Fernando Lugo out of office.

"The country is calm. I was elected [as vice-president] in 2008 by popular vote. Activity is normal and there is no protest," Franco said.

His first two appointments were Interior Minister Carmelo Caballero, who will be tasked with maintaining public order in the poor, landlocked South American country, 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," Franco said.

That won't prove easy, though. Argentina on Saturday withdrew its ambassador from Paraguay, and Brazil brought its top emissary home for consultations.

'It is a coup'

The Paraguayan Senate voted 39-4 on Friday to dismiss Lugo a little more than a year before his five-year term was to end, and Franco took the oath of office soon after. 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.

"Without doubt it is a coup, a parliamentary coup, a coup against the citizenry and democracy, and we have to shout that to the four winds," Lugo said.

Lugo's ouster drew swift condemnation around Latin America from leaders who called it a de facto coup, and several presidents said they would seek Paraguay's expulsion from regional groups.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner called the developments "grave institutional events" and said the Argentine embassy's No. 2 will remain in charge "until democratic order is re-established in that country."

The Cuban government said Saturday it wouldn't recognize the new government and called Lugo's removal a "parliamentary coup d'état executed against the constitutional President Fernando Lugo and the brother people of Paraguay."

Criticism came from conservative governments, too.

Chile said 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."

Media interference

Many shops were closed and streets were quiet Saturday, but the calm was broken at night by a protest at a public television station created by Lugo's administration. About 200 people shouted "no to censorship, no to repression," and demanded the station be allowed to continue to operate independently of the Franco government's interests.

Local media reported allegations that Franco's communications advisor showed up at the station Friday and demanded the programming schedule. The director of Television Publica resigned hours after Lugo was ousted.

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 their way during 61 years of single-party rule by the Colorado faction, fought Lugo's attempts to raise taxes on the country's No. 1 export, soy, and to redistribute farmland to the poor majority.