Why did one of the happiest countries in the world burn down its Congress?

Why did one of the happiest countries in the world burn down its Congress?

A demonstrator with a Paraguayan flag covered in blood faces one of the many street barricade-fires during confrontations with the police.

(Santi Carneri)

Flames over three metres high devoured the main entrance to the National Congress of Paraguay while 1000 people invaded the building and tore down signs, smashing up doors, windows and computers as the police did nothing to stop them.

For two hours, the place where the members of parliament and senators of one of the happiest countries in the world hold their debates every week turned into a war zone. Inside the Congress bomb blasts and shots could be heard, with more flames and more smoke appearing every time.

Outside the building, thousands of people who had gathered to protest against the re-election of President Horacio Cartes, forbidden under the constitution, fled in panic, pursued by mounted police and shots from the anti-riot squads.

Within a few hours, a young leader from the main opposition party, the Liberal Party, was killed by shotgun bullets fired by an anti-riot police officer, at the headquarters of his own party.

What happened on 31 March this year in Paraguay, one of the least known countries of the Americas? Why was the Congress burned down, and not the Government Palace? Who is Horacio Cartes, the multi-millionaire conservative and current President who wanted to be re-elected despite the opposition of much of his own party?

The origins of the violence

On the morning of 31 March, in Asunción, the annual assembly of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) was held in Paraguay for the first time, during which the Government of Paraguay presented its new “country brand” , an expensive imaging exercise designed to “strengthen the integration” of Paraguay in the world. This was something necessary for a country that has had the longest-running dictatorship in South America, under the tyrannical rule of General Alfredo Stroessner, which kept the country isolated until 1989.

But it was another image of Paraguay that appeared a few hours later on news networks and television screens: the Congress in flames, also for the first time, while around it a pitched battle waged.

On the previous Tuesday, a heated discussion ended in a shouting match in the corridors of Asunción’s Legislative Palace. Left-wing senators argued amongst themselves while conservatives from the governing Colorado Party divided into two factions: the loyalists, who supported the re-election of Cartes, and the dissidents, who rejected it. It all took place in a highly charged atmosphere.

The day began with Congress totally surrounded by police: water cannon vans and hundreds of anti-riot police preventing anyone from getting through. This triggered the first wave of indignation, which continued to grow until it all exploded on the Friday.

Suddenly, without warning, 25 of the 45 senators met on Friday 31 April in an office of the minority left-wing party Frente Guasú – the party of former president Fernando Lugo, who, like Cartes, was also seeking re-election. Inside the Congress, with the president of the Chamber absent, a vote to change the internal regulations of the Senate was passed. This made changes to the powers of the president of the upper Chamber, preventing him or her from rejecting a draft amendment, a manoeuvre defended by the cartistas and the luguistas and which made it possible to present the draft at any time.

When the news broke that the senate had approved the draft amendment, opposition parliamentarians went out into the street and hundreds of demonstrators pulled down the barriers protecting the Congress perimeter, ran in and broke down anything in their path.

“It was a tough demonstration and there are always football hooligans in there somewhere. They are like gangs, they have a political role, and many of the leaders gather votes, and love to fight with the police like on the football field,’’ explains Milda Rivarola, a Paraguayan historian and researcher.

“It is a power struggle between different Asunción groups. There is the very privileged political class that holds the people in contempt and is closely linked to the interests of the big landowners; in Congress above all they love it when one power controls another, but on both the right and the left there is a lot of anger and contempt towards congress,” she adds.

The Legislative Palace is in the heart of the city, about 200 metres from the bureaucratic and financial district, and twenty paces from the Chacarita, the one-hundred-year-old villa of Asunción, on the banks of the Paraguay River. Less than a kilometre away, as Saturday dawned, anti-riot police entered the headquarters of the opposing Liberal Party, where three members of parliament and dozens of liberal activists had taken refuge, and opened fire on the young Rodrigo Quintana, who died on the way to hospital.

“We are facing the most serious threat to democracy since 1989. Cartes’ intentions, together with those of some parts of the opposition such as Frente Guasú and factions of the Liberal Party are creating a very complex situation of constitutional abuse, as well as perhaps some sectors which we trusted as being more democratic and more of a role model,” says Camilo Filartiga, a lawyer and lecturer at the Catholic University of Asunción.

Filártiga stresses that “young graduates, trade unions, employers and other social sectors are outraged and these widely diverse groups all demonstrated with one thing in common: their firm rejection of any violation of the constitution.”

After the bloodshed and the fire, Cartes renounced his re-election bid

Two weeks after the riots which led to the burning down of Congress, President Horacio Cartes published on his Twitter account a letter addressed to the Archbishop of Asunción in which he informed him of his “gesture of renunciation” which he hoped would serve to “improve the dialogue aimed at rebuilding institutional strength” in Paraguay.

“I have taken the decision not to stand, under any circumstances, as candidate in the elections for President of the Republic for the 2018-2023 term,” said Cartes in his letter to Edmundo Valenzuela, chair of the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference and mediator in the violent political crisis that has opened up in this South American country.

Cartes, whose mandate ends in less than a year, was elected President in 2013 in the first elections held in Paraguay since the removal from office in a political trial very similar to that of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, of the first progressive President of the democracy, Fernando Lugo.

The present incumbent in Paraguay, a multi-millionaire who had never shown any interest in politics and who voted for the first time in 2013, governs with the Colorado Party, the same party used by the dictator Stroessner to hang on to power indefinitely.

Cartes - who runs a group of some 20 companies ranging from banking, tobacco, drinks and cattle ranching - has a long history of being linked with illegal activity which began during the dictatorship. In 1985 he was sentenced to prison for defrauding the Central Bank of Paraguay of US$34 million but he escaped and was a fugitive from Paraguayan justice for four years. He returned after the fall of the regime and finally in 2008 the Supreme Court of Justice dismissed the charges against him.

According to a Wikileaks cable, he was also investigated by the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for suspected money laundering of the profits from drug trafficking and massive cigarette smuggling.

Furthermore, daily papers in Mexico, Brazil and Chile have published journalistic investigations showing that much of the illegal traffic in cigarettes in the Americas comes from Tabacalera del Esta SA, a company owned by Cartes.

Since Cartes publicly announced he would no longer stand for re-election, the Colorado party has seen serious internal clashes between loyalists and opponents seeking to be the country’s next president. Head of the polls is the man considered his heir apparent, Santiago Peña, his hitherto young Treasury Minister, who has resigned from the post to begin his internal electoral campaign with a view to the forthcoming elections, officially announced on 22 August and due to take place on 22 April 2018.

This article has been translated from Spanish.