Cartes takes office in Paraguay

Conservative businessman Horacio Cartes was sworn in as president of Paraguay Thursday, amid slowly improving relations with South American neighbors damaged by the 2012 ouster of leftist president Fernando Lugo.

As cathedral bells pealed, Cartes prayed for "wisdom, prudence and justice to fulfill my duty to serve the noble Paraguayan people."

Cartes, 57, whose election on April 21 returned to power the Colorado party of the late dictator Alfredo Stroessner, took the oath of office in the gardens of the presidential palace.

He used his inaugural address to pledge a "war on poverty" in a country where 39 percent of the seven-million people are poor.

"If in five years, we haven't substantially reduced poverty, all our work will have been for nothing," he said.

He also reached out to the leaders of neighboring states attending the ceremony, saying his "strong predisposition is to maintain cordial bilateral relations rather than aggravate differences of the moment."

"Our intention is that we become closer. Understanding and cooperation honor us," he said.

Conspicuously absent at Cartes' inauguration was Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, a close leftist ally of Lugo who was pointedly not invited to the ceremony.

But the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Peru were there, signalling an end to the international ostracism Paraguay experienced in the wake of the political crisis two years ago.

And Maduro sent Cartes a letter of congratulations, pledging to do everything in his power for a "prompt return" of Paraguay to Mercosur.

Paraguay was suspended from the South American trading bloc in June 2012 after its Congress abruptly impeached and forced out Lugo, who was blamed for the deaths of 17 people in a clash between police and armed peasants.

Mercosur's presidents said in July that the organization would lift the suspension after Cartes' inauguration, but Paraguay has said it will not return to the trading bloc as long as Venezuela holds its rotating presidency.

Cartes met separately on Wednesday with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, and was expected to meet after the ceremony with Uruguay's President Jose Mujica and Peru's President Ollanta Humala.

Cartes' designated foreign minister, Eladio Loizaga, has said the new government would pursue relations with Mercosur members Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay bilaterally.

Unasur, a regional security organization that also suspended Paraguay over the Lugo ouster, announced over the weekend that it was lifting the measure in view of the April elections, which it said were held "with total normality and broad citizen participation."

Cartes replaces Federico Franco, a Liberal party leader who has led the country since Lugo's ouster.

Also at the inauguration were Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou and Prince Felipe of Spain.