Paraguay was plunged into a constitutional crisis after congress was stormed and set on fire by protesters, enraged by attempts by President Horacio Cartes to amend the constitution to allow his re-election.
Furious protesters, one of whom was killed by police, accused Mr Cartes of engineering a coup, echoing similar cries elsewhere in the region after Venezuela’s government-controlled Supreme Court dissolved congress on Thursday.
What is going on here is a coup, have no doubt about it
The unrest in Paraguay broke out at an awkward moment for the pro-business government, which is touting itself to foreign investors as it hosts hundreds of executives from around the world in Asunción during the annual meetings of the Inter-American Development Bank this weekend.
“This doesn’t look good for Cartes, but it can be no coincidence that this is happening right now while we are all here,” said one foreign executive at a glitzy cocktail party hosted by the IDB on Friday night, as guests looked at dramatic images of the chaos taking place downtown on their smartphones.
Images showed rioters burning tires, smashing windows and hurling large objects at police — who responded with water cannons, mounted units, tear gas and plastic bullets — before they managed to break down makeshift fences surrounding congress and set the building alight for several hours.
Mr Cartes urged calm in a letter he published on Twitter late on Friday: “Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to do its utmost to uphold law and order . . . We must not allow a few barbarians to destroy the peace, calm and general wellbeing of the Paraguayan people,” he said.
The commotion was caused by a vote behind closed doors in the senate on Friday — denounced as illegal by the opposition — in favour of a constitutional amendment allowing presidents to be re-elected. It remains to be approved by the government-controlled lower house. Mr Cartes’ term five-year mandate expires next year.
“What is going on here is a coup, have no doubt about it, by Cartes and [Fernando] Lugo,” said Rubén Penayo, an opposition politician, referring also to the former leftist president whose impeachment in 2012 was widely denounced as a coup in the region at the time. The former bishop supports the amendment, which will enable him to run for president again too.
Paraguay’s constitution has prohibited re-election since it was passed in 1992 after the end of a 35-year dictatorship in 1989 under General Alfredo Stroessner. While several countries in the region still haunted by memories of dictatorial rule forbid re-election, such as Chile and Peru, others have amended their constitutions to allow it, like Colombia and Venezuela.
The re-election of Mr Cartes — whose conglomerate Grupo Cartes has major interests in the tobacco, soft drinks, banking, real estate and agricultural sectors — would enable him to deepen a process of business-friendly reforms that have consolidated Paraguay as one of the fastest-growing countries in the region.
Despite major recessions in neighbouring Brazil and Argentina, Paraguay has enjoyed average growth of around 4.5 per cent for the last 10 years.
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