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Brazil: Paraguay may be suspended from Mercosur

MENDOZA, Argentina (AP) – South American foreign ministers plan to recommend that Paraguay be suspended from the Mercosur regional trade bloc over last week’s ouster of former President Fernando Lugo, Brazil’s foreign minister said Thursday.

But Antonio Patriota said that ministers attending a bloc summit in Mendoza, Argentina will recommend against economic sanctions in retaliation for the impeachment of Lugo. Speaking to a small group of journalists outside closed-door meetings, Patriota said he could not give any further details about Paraguay’s possible suspension, nor say how long it might last.

Mercosur’s final decision on what to do about Paraguay will be announced Friday following a meeting of regional heads of state.

“We have been working on a resolution that will be taken tomorrow … as you all might have anticipated, it is the suspension of Paraguay’s participation from the workings of Mercosur,” Patriota told reporters after meeting with his Argentine, Uruguayan and Venezuelan counterparts.

Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop whose presidency was marred by a cancer scare and several paternity scandals, was ousted last Friday by Congress in a fast trial triggered by a land eviction that killed people in gunbattles between police and landless peasants.

Mercosur barred Lugo’s replacement, former Vice President Federico Franco, from attending the meetings. Franco told the Associated Press in an interview Thursday that the transition of power in Paraguay was carried out according to the law and that now “the country is absolutely normalized.”

Franco also said the current ban on his government attending the meeting of the Mercosur _ which also includes Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay _ was punishment enough. “This political sanction, God will help us manage it and it will give us the wisdom to soon find a solution to this problem,” he said.

Lugo had initially said he would attend the summit in order to plead his case with regional leaders but later changed his mind. He later spoke out against retaliatory economic sanctions, which he said would only hurt ordinary Paraguayans.

Many analysts had expected Mercosur foreign ministers to recommend a set of sanctions on Thursday.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has called Lugo’s removal a coup that violates the group’s democratic principles.

Former Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said Paraguay risks losing trade with Mercosur members, which would be a “tough blow” since more than half its trade is with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

“It’s vital that Mercosur members are very strict against what went on in Paraguay,” Taiana said. “We were all strongly against the 2009 coup in Honduras … and it’s repeating itself.”

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was spirited out of the country by the military in 2009 after he defied a Supreme Court order to cancel a national referendum asking voters if Honduras should change its constitution. He was only allowed to end his exile in 2011 after the Organization of American States brokered a deal for his return _ but not as president. Lugo told the AP in an interview on Tuesday that he expected events in Paraguay to echo those in Honduras.

Mercosur is also discussing measures to shield member states’ economies from a flood of cheap imports, especially those coming from China, and whether to grant Venezuela full membership. It is an associate member and has been trying to get full status for years. The move had been blocked by Paraguayan lawmakers.

Taiana said “there’s a lot of interest in allowing Venezuela’s full participation.” He confirmed that its full status as member of the bloc will be among the issues discussed by regional presidents but would not say whether a decision will be taken Friday.

The Paraguay crisis, however, is eclipsing the other issues and it could not come at a better time for Mercosur, whose member states are failing to solve trade disputes and allegations that Argentina and Brazil are hurting smaller members through protectionist measures.

“This came at a great time for Mercosur because it has lost vitality, direction and in practice it doesn’t work to even solve the simplest of disputes, especially commercial ones,” said Sergio Berensztein, director of Poliarquia, a Buenos Aires consulting firm.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)