ASUNCION, Paraguay, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- Paraguay is emerging stronger from diplomatic isolation, slapped on the landlocked country by Latin American neighbors after a June 2012 congressional impeachment ousted former President Fernando Lugo.
What started as an enthusiastic left-wing campaign in solidarity with Lugo, even after he accepted his fate, and led to a controversial fast-tracking of Venezuela's entry into Mercosur regional group has all but fizzled out. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay's three leading Mercosur partners who mounted the campaign, now can't wait to mend fences with Paraguay's new President Horacio Cartes.
Cartes, however, has made clear that he can, and will, wait. The former businessman and Colorado Party centrist politician was elected April 2013 and took office in August. His fortunes have also turned with an economic recovery fueled by higher commodity prices.
In the few weeks before and after his inauguration Cartes minced no words stating what the troika of leaders did was unlawful and ran counter to Mercosur's spirit of good neighborly behavior. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro recently held out an apology as a peace gesture. It wasn't clear if Maduro regretted the way he got his country into Mercosur or the manner in which he was caught trying to mastermind a military coup in Asuncion to bring Lugo back into power.
The irony of it all is that Lugo isn't too keen on getting back into power -- unless the presidency is handed back to him without too much effort, which isn't likely. The former Catholic bishop saw his popularity wane as a succession of women from his flock came forward with claims he'd fathered their children -- three revealed so far.
With Lugo out of the picture, the heat is on Maduro, who not only got Venezuela into Mercosur via questionable methods, with the connivance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, but also was handed this term's rotating chair for the group's leadership. Paraguay argues it should have chaired this round.
So Cartes isn't having any of it. He wants, he says, the "rule of law" to prevail and has spurned olive-branch gestures including cash for Paraguay as "alms" that his nation, however poor, can do without. A return to correct procedure is the key, says Cartes. That, analysts say, is Cartes' shorthand for reversing Venezuela's entry into Mercosur.
Oil-rich Venezuela began as a founding member of Mercosur but soon found its entry blocked because of firebrand politics of former President Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in March. After much cajoling everyone in Mercosur except the Paraguayan congress agreed to let Venezuela in. With Lugo's ouster and Paraguay's suspension from the group last year, Mercosur's left-wing front-runners saw an opportunity to confirm Venezuela's membership.
That, Cartes argues, was highly irregular and must be rectified. After meeting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia this week, Cartes sent off another rejoinder to his repentant rivals who caused him so much grief until recently.
"The foreign ministers from Argentina and Brazil must be aware that the return to Mercosur must not be seen as a political deal but effectively [respect for] the rule of the law," Cartes told reporters.
"This is what we've always asked, that's what we are working on, and more than time it's an issue of finding the right procedure," he said.
Analysts say Cartes wants to decide the shape and size of the humble pie the three presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay must eat. He also sees himself able to decide whether he'll agree to let Venezuela stay a member of Mercosur or require it to reapply.
At a recent summit in Suriname, Maduro apologized to the Paraguayan people for his conduct. He was late Chavez's foreign minister when he was caught plotting with Paraguayan military leaders to stage a coup and restore Lugo to presidency.
In the latest bid to appease Cartes and atone for past diplomatic gaffes, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told him Paraguay "has a very important significance at this moment" and that Paraguay "will always be a strategic country" for Brazil. Her comments were a complete reversal of past threats by the three countries to leave Paraguay out in the cold.
Brazil and Paraguay share the Itaipu hydro-electric power dam on the Parana River. Paraguay says what Brazil pays for taking electricity from the dam is a pittance and must be revised upward.
Cartes also shot back at Rousseff's offers of help with Paraguay's poverty reduction program. "Paraguay is not asking for alms or favors," he said. Paraguay, he said, "wants to sit at the big table." That he said can come only with a return to the rule of law, his reference to the anomalous situation of Venezuela's controversial admission into Mercosur.