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Paraguay's new president proving effective

Paraguay's Foreign Minister Jose Fernandez, left, sits next to President Federico Franco, who answers a question during a news conference at Presidential Palace, in Asuncion, Paraguay, Friday, July 20, 2012. Paraguay's Foreign Minister Jose Fernandez, left, sits next to President Federico Franco, who answers a question during a news conference at Presidential Palace, in Asuncion, Paraguay, Friday, July 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
By Belen Bogado
Associated Press / July 25, 2012
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ASUNCION, Paraguay—Much of the world had written off Federico Franco last month when he ascended to Paraguay's presidency amid doubts about his ability to even stay in power for more than a few days.

The country's Congress had just rushed through the impeachment of his predecessor, and critics both inside and outside Paraguay predicted the vice president would be forever hobbled by questions about his new administration's legitimacy.

Over the past five weeks, however, with a doggedness characterizing his long political career, Franco has pulled off a minor miracle: He's actually governed.

The trained cardiologist has racked up accomplishments past administrations had tried but failed to implement, such as advancing land reform and pushing the country's first personal income tax. International opprobrium over the impeachment has led to no sanctions or much in the way of lost trade, although Paraguay has been suspended from some regional groups.

To be sure, Franco has benefited from the support of legislators who voted almost unanimously to impeach former President Fernando Lugo and have their eyes on next year's presidential elections. But the leader, who turned 50 Tuesday, is now trumpeting the accomplishments of his government and promising more to come in his 13 months left in office.

"My major joy will be to begin the inauguration of a serious and predictable country," Franco said in a recent TV interview.

In particular, Franco touted the titling of swaths of Paraguayan farmland to poor farmers, an important part of a land reform that Lugo long promised but notably fell short of accomplishing. Many believe that failure, and the violence stemming from land conflicts, ultimately cost Lugo popular support and paved the way for his ouster.

"In a 15-day period, we handed property titles to 74 people," Franco said. "Do you know how many were handed in the past six months? It was handed to three people. This means here is the will, the decision to solve the land problem."

Hugo Saguier, a political analyst and president of the Forum of National and International Strategic Analysis in Paraguay, said Franco at least is stabilizing this land-locked, impoverished country after weeks of turmoil leading up to and following the June 22 impeachment.

"He wants to leave his name high, move forward a national project, so that the next one who will take over will find an organized country," Saguier said. "People are now working with more security, in the private and the public sectors."

Lugo's supporters, however, remain a major obstacle for Franco and vow to continue challenging his government. They accuse Franco of manipulating his way to power, even when the two men were elected on the same ticket in 2008.

The pair had led a coalition of Lugo's leftist base and the center-right Liberals to defeat the Colorado Party, which had held the presidency for 61 years. But the relationship was tense from the start, with the former president leaving his No. 2 out of the administration's decision-making.

"He has ignored me," Franco complained before Lugo's impeachment. About 3,000 people protested outside the Congress as Franco was sworn into office, just minutes after the impeachment vote.

"He was always conspiring and always played the role of opposition despite being part of the government, looking always for a way to confront Lugo," said Sen. Carlos Filizzola, of a smaller socialist party and one of four senators who voted to absolve Lugo.

Franco launched his political career when he was still in medical school but said he long had his eye on the presidency. He later became a municipal board member, then mayor, and Liberal governor. He was a candidate this year in a national poll to choose the party's presidential candidates but came in third.

Now, he's finally reached the top, only to see his political career likely come to a swift end.

Re-election is prohibited in Paraguay, meaning Franco will have to hand over power after the 2013 elections. He'll also be barred from seeking the job again.

"Nobody can say we asked to be in this position," said Franco's wife, legislator Emilia Alfaro, with whom he has four children and three grandchildren. "I was so hurt. I told him, crying, that he would miss such an important career as a politician, he would no longer be able to run as president or senator, and I asked him whether he was sure."

Well-groomed and careful with his words and habits, Franco nonetheless placed himself at the heart of an international controversy while insisting on his administration's legitimacy. Now, he's doing his best to defy the naysayers, working 15-hour days and cutting out most everything in his personal life except for attending Mass.

Franco has already pushed through the Senate a 10 percent income tax for people earning more than $4,000 a month, which counts as a wealthy income in this largely agricultural economy. Paraguay was the only country in the region that didn't have such a tax.

The Senate has also approved a $125 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to build a trolley system in the capital of Asuncion. The lower house is expected to approve the loan shortly, although it rejected the proposal during Lugo's term.

Franco's administration plans to start negotiations with the Canadian multinational company Rio Tinto Alcan for an aluminum production project that stalled when Lugo was in power. The project is estimated to invest $3.5 billion in Paraguay.

Franco says he'll also tackle one of Paraguay's most lawless areas, its wild north, where the guerrilla Army of the Paraguayan People has kidnapped civilians, killed a police officer and attacked farms and police headquarters.

One Franco move, however, has sparked criticism.

He had promised that the "time when family or friends used to occupy public positions is over" but then appointed sister-in-law Mirtha Vergara de Franco as an adviser to the authority running the hydroelectric dam Itaipu.

An ex-senator and former ambassador to Uruguay, she earns $13,330 a month, 36 times Paraguay's minimum monthly salary of $370, or more than three times the president's salary.

When asked about his sister-in-law in a news conference, Franco said it would be the "only case of a family member appointed." His 29-year-old son Federico, a municipal board member, serves as his right-hand man but doesn't have an official job with the president's office.

Franco, for one, said criticism of the impeachment hasn't slowed him down, as he pushes his ambitious agenda.

He said he "categorically rejects" characterizations of Lugo's ouster as undemocratic and claims it was done according to the law. He also said he's enjoyed "100 percent acceptance" among Paraguayans and that the climate in the country is the best in recent years.

Filizzola, however, said Lugo's supporters will keep fighting to return the ousted president to office. They have filed motions with the Supreme Court, alleging that the impeachment was unconstitutional.

Neighboring countries have also refused to recognize Franco's new government, calling the impeachment an "institutional coup." Both the Unasur group of South American nations and the region's Mercosur trade bloc have suspended Paraguay until it holds a new presidential election.

Those countries, however, have stopped short of applying economic sanctions, and Franco joked that Paraguay could save money if it didn't send its officials to regional gatherings.

Sen. Efrain Alegre, who appears likely to become the Liberal Party's next presidential candidate, believes Franco could help the party win the 2013 election, especially if he continues to get things done.

"He doesn't have much time," said Alegre, "but I have the confidence that his management will be successful."

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