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Paraguay swears in new leader after impeachment

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Sat June 23, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Vice president takes oath of office as president
  • Senate votes to remove President Fernando Lugo
  • Lugo calls the impeachment proceedings a coup
  • Opponents say everything is within the constitution

(CNN) -- Paraguay had a new president Friday evening after its Senate voted to remove Fernando Lugo, whose political fortunes unraveled after a bloody confrontation between peasants and police.

The country's vice president, Federico Franco, wearing the colorful president sash, took the oath of office at a meeting of Congress shortly after the action.

The Senate impeachment vote was 39 in favor, four against and two absent. The lower chamber of Congress voted nearly unanimously Thursday to impeach Lugo, a former Catholic bishop.

Franco is a member of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, which supported the ouster.

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Lugo's defense team argued Friday that senators had prejudged him during the trial that drew hundreds of protesters outside the congressional building. They called the proceedings unconstitutional and asked, in vain, for more time to prepare their defense.

Supporters called the proceedings against Lugo an attempted coup d'etat, a charged term that raises fears of political or social unrest in the land-locked South American nation of 6.5 million.

The central issue behind the impeachment trial was a June 15 incident in which police clashed with landless peasants, resulting in 17 deaths.

Peasants in eastern Paraguay fired on police who were trying to evict them from private property, initiating the deadly confrontation, local authorities and state-run media said.

The violence occurred in Curuguaty, a remote community about 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, near the Brazilian border.

Lugo replaced his interior minister and national police chief in the aftermath of the clash, but his handling of the matter irked his political opponents and supporters alike.

Lawmakers also leveled charges of lack of security, nepotism and a controversial land purchase.

The stage for impeachment was set when members of a liberal party that supported him withdrew their backing, leaving the president nearly alone before Congress. Only one lawmaker in the lower chamber voted against impeachment, while 76 voted in favor.

Foreign ministers belonging to the Union of South American Nations, known as UNASUR, traveled to Asuncion to meet with Lugo before the trial.

"The nations of UNASUR have the right and the obligation to ensure that, based on technicalities, the legitimacy of democracy is not broken in Paraguay," Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said.

"There is international concern that this is some sort of attempt to end early the term of a democratically elected president," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Paraguayan political analyst.

Outside of the Curuguaty clash, the other arguments raised for Lugo's impeachment are political in nature, he said.

One lawmaker opposed to Lugo, Sebastian Acha, said that the number of votes for impeachment in the chamber of deputies leaves no doubt that it is not a partisan move.

Lugo has long "flirted" with groups of landless peasants who are prone to violence, culminating in the recent clash, Acha said.

Since Lugo came to office in 2008, lawmakers on several occasions have considered impeachment proceedings but stopped short, he said. But there is no fix that Lugo can make for the violence or for blaming the police, and impeachment is the way to proceed, the lawmaker said.

In an interview with Venezuelan network TeleSur, Lugo accused lawmakers of engaging in an "express coup d'etat" that happened overnight.

He accused those who benefited from corruption in earlier governments of orchestrating the impeachment and said he has a "very strong hypothesis" that an opposition presidential candidate is behind it. Lugo's term was to end in 2013.

Anibal Carrillo, political secretary for a party loyal to the president, said that ousting the president is the goal of his enemies who didn't like that he tackled corruption or the land issue.

These forces "are carrying out a coup that may be legal under the constitution and legal by the numbers of votes, but it lacks justice; it lacks seriousness," he said.

CNN's Claudia Dominguez and CNN en EspaƱol's Carlos Montero and Fernando del Rincon and journalist Sanie Lopez contributed to this report.

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