Paraguay's president faces the prospect of being impeached soon over a botched police attempt to evict peasants from disputed property. The incident highlights the land problems that continue to plague the country.
Paraguay's opposition-dominated House of Representatives on Thursday voted to impeach President Fernando Lugo for “poor performance of his duties” after a violent confrontation to evict peasants last week in a country where two percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land.
A vote in favor of impeaching Lugo was passed by the lower house with an overwhelming majority of 73 votes to one. The proposal must now get past the Senate, which is dominated by opponents to Lugo. If an impeachment were to go ahead, it would take place in the country's Senate.
"The Liberal Party carries no political responsibility for Lugo's government," said Liberal Party leader Blas Llano, signalling its withdrawal of support from Lugo. The Liberals had been allied with the president but have now requested its four government ministers to leave Lugo's cabinet.
"This president announces that he is not going to present his resignation and that he will fully respect the constitution and the law to face the impeachment trial and its full consequences," said Lugo in a national television broadcast in a bid to make clear that he would not be stepping down.
"There is no valid cause - neither legal nor political – to make me resign," he added.
Violence exploded on a rural estate in Curuguaty, 250 kilometers northeast of Paraguay's capital Asuncion, when over 300 police officers were dispatched to evict 150 armed peasants occupying land allegedly owned by Blas Riquelme, a former senator and political opponent to Lugo. But the Office of the General Prosecutor and the National Institute of Rural Development and Land say the land in question belongs to the state. The situation quickly escalated after the peasants fired shots, leaving six police officers and 11 farmers dead.
Underlying the incident is mounting tension over rising inequality in a country where one third of the population lives in rural areas. Much land in Paraguay is the subject of dispute and the country's judiciary has been criticized for failing to set up clear processes by which people can stake their claims to land they believe they should own.
According to the country's constitution, in the event of an impeachment, the president is replaced by the vice president until the end of the original term. The next presidential elections are scheduled for April 2013.
Foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations announced late on Thursday they would visit Paraguay to ensure "full respect for the democratic order."
sej, rc/msh (IPS, AFP, Reuters)