Published June 21, 2012
| Associated Press
Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo is facing the possibility of impeachment.
The Paraguayan Senate said Thursday it will begin the president's impeachment trial on Friday, issuing the announcement just hours after the lower house of Congress voted to impeach him for his role in a deadly clash involving landless farmers.
The developments added to the South American nation's political turmoil and prompted frightened residents of the capital to shutter businesses and pull children from school.
Lugo appeared on national television earlier Thursday promised to face the trial "with all its consequences," dismissing rumors that he might resign. The lower house approved the impeachment trial by a vote of 76-1.
Capital residents 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.
"I'm working in the street and truth is I'm really scared! Upset," a Twitter user named Pamela Veron wrote on her account. "And the new Interior Minister, what does he say about our security?" a Paraguayan man named Juan Fleytas tweeted. "He guarantees that nothing will happen to us if we protest?"
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. 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 (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 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.
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 Catholic 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.
The president was once known as the "bishop of the poor," and his election was part of South America's leftward swing.
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 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."
Ana Campuzano, a 42-year-old odontologist, backed the ouster effort. "Lugo should resign, it was bad for him to remain" after the deadly clash, she said. "It's his fault because he doesn't know how to manage things."
On Thursday, Lugo urged lawmakers to do all they can to avoid an impeachment trial, warning that it could be resisted by many citizens who back him and that 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 (7 million hectares) ended up in the hands of just 1,877 people, according to a 2004 government study.
In 1999, the assassination of 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 were killed in a confrontation with government forces, leading to Cubas' resignation.