Paraguay Picks a New President: What You Need to Know


Paraguay, the landlocked nation of 7 million people in the center of South America, picks a new president on Sunday. The vote will test the strength of Latin America’s leftward shift in recent years.

Opposition challengers have won the last 16 freely held presidential elections in Latin America, and six of the region’s seven largest countries have elected leftist leaders since 2018.

Now it will be seen whether that trend can hold with Paraguay, perhaps South America’s most staunchly conservative nation, as it grapples with deep poverty, a sputtering economy and deeply rooted corruption.

The conservative Colorado Party is seeking to retain its grip on the country, which it has controlled for all but five of the past 76 years, including four decades of military dictatorship.

But that dominance now appears in jeopardy. The Colorado incumbent, President Mario Abdo Benítez, cannot run again because of term limits — and surveys show he is one of Latin America’s most unpopular leaders because of his handling of the pandemic. Representing the Colorado Party at the polls will be Paraguay’s former finance minister.

In January, the U.S. government placed financial sanctions on the Colorado Party’s leader, the former president Horacio Cartes, accusing him of bribing his way to power. The sanctions have complicated the party’s financing.

Some recent polls have shown that the leading opposition candidate — a conservative who is still to the left of the Colorado Party’s contender — holds a narrow lead.

The election, which also covers congressional, regional and local seats, has featured debate over diplomatic relations with China and Taiwan, promises of a prison built specifically for corrupt politicians and late momentum for a far-right candidate who has pledged to dissolve Congress and enact military rule.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, with results expected within hours of polls closing. Candidates need a simple majority to be elected.

Here’s what you need to know.

The Colorado candidate, Santiago Peña, 44, is Paraguay’s former finance minister, a former International Monetary Fund economist in Washington and the protégé of Mr. Cartes, the sanctioned ex-president.

While the Colorado Party has often built its support on socially conservative policies, Mr. Peña has pitched himself as the party’s new generation, one more focused on the economy. He has promised to create 500,000 jobs, offer free kindergarten, decrease fuel and energy prices, and get more police officers on the street.

In an interview, he has said he would pay for those promises by expanding the economy, and thus tax revenue, by eliminating red tape.

The leading opposition candidate, Efraín Alegre, 60, is a conservative lawyer and former congressman who leads a broad coalition of dozens of political parties, from the far left to the religious right, that have joined together to oust the Colorados. Sunday is his third try for the nation’s highest office. In 2018, he came within just 96,000 votes — or 4 percent of the total — from the presidency.

The son of a bus driver and a preacher from rural Paraguay, Mr. Alegre has sought to present himself as an Everyman, promising to eschew the presidential residence if elected.

He has built his campaign on a pledge to root out the “mafia” that he said controlled Paraguay. He also has promised to banish corrupt politicians to a new prison in an arid, remote region in the north and to pay for free medication by recouping what he said was $2 billion embezzled by the Colorados each year.

“It’s not only about bringing change, it’s about recovering what was stolen and returning it to the people,” he said in an interview on Friday.

While Mr. Peña and Mr. Alegre have led the polls, Paraguayo Cubas, 61, an eccentric anti-corruption firebrand, has gained momentum in recent surveys.

Mr. Cubas is a far-right former senator who was expelled from Congress after physically grappling with other lawmakers and kicking a police car. He had previously attracted headlines for whipping a judge with his belt and then defecating in the judge’s office. He has run his campaign mainly on social media, branding Congress as a “cave of bandits” and suggesting he would rule as a dictator.

Analysts are skeptical that Mr. Cubas has a path to the presidency. Instead, they said, he could take votes from Mr. Alegre and hand the Colorado Party victory.

Mr. Cartes, 66, left the presidency in 2018 but is still perhaps Paraguay’s most powerful man. In addition to running the Colorado Party, he has financial interests in cigarette factories, banks, pharmacies, TV channels, newspapers and a soccer club.

In January, the U.S. Treasury Department barred him and his companies from the U.S. financial system, claiming he had ties to the Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah and had doled out millions of dollars to cement his control over government. Mr. Cartes has denied the allegations.

The financial sanctions made it more difficult for the Colorado Party to raise money and posed a political dilemma for Mr. Peña.

In an interview, Mr. Peña said the allegations were Mr. Cartes’s “personal responsibility” and not reflective of the party or him. “I’m my own person,” he said. The two men still appeared onstage together this week.

Mr. Alegre has seized on the allegations against Mr. Cartes, calling him the “Paraguayan Pablo Escobar.”

Crime: Paraguay, which has long been a haven for drug traffickers, has been shaken by a string of high-profile murders. In one case, a federal prosecutor investigating drug cartels was shot dead by jet-ski-riding assassins while on his honeymoon, next to his pregnant wife on a Colombian beach.

The economy: Paraguay was one of the Latin American nations most devastated by the pandemic, and its economy shrank last year. A quarter of the population lives in poverty, many roads are still unpaved, and hospitals are short on basic medicines. Tax rates are among the lowest in the region.

Taiwan: Paraguay is part of a fast-shrinking club of 13 countries, mostly small island nations, that maintain relations with Taiwan rather than China. The Paraguay-Taiwan friendship — inked by their dictators in 1957 — remains strong. Taiwan paid for Paraguay’s modernist congressional building and provided its presidential jet. But Paraguay’s farmers face obstacles in exporting soybeans and beef to China as a result. Mr. Alegre has said he will re-examine the relationship, which would upset U.S. officials. Mr. Peña has pledged to keep the status quo.

The dam: Whoever dons the presidential sash on Aug. 15 will also have to handle a pivotal negotiation over Itaipú, a colossal hydroelectric dam shared with Brazil. Per a 1973 treaty, Paraguay sells its spare energy from the dam to Brazil at rock-bottom prices. But the treaty elapses in August, opening the door to a transformational deal for the poorer country.

Polls show a neck-and-neck race between Mr. Peña and Mr. Alegre, with each candidate leading some surveys. (Paraguayan pollsters have historically been inaccurate. In 2018, polls wildly overestimated the support for the Colorado candidate.)

AtlasIntel, a Brazilian pollster, said that according to a recent online poll of 2,320 Paraguayans, Mr. Alegre led with 34 percent, Mr. Peña had 33 percent and Mr. Cubas had 23 percent. The margin of error was 2 percentage points. The poll’s biggest surprise was the level of support for Mr. Cubas.

In interviews in the capital, Asunción, on Friday, Paraguayans said they were frustrated with corruption and the direction of the country, but they differed about who was the right person to change it.

Juana Salinas, 74, was waiting for the bus outside a market, with a black cane and a trash bag full of food containers for sale. She said she supported Mr. Peña because she had always voted Colorado, like her deceased parents. “Always, because I’m not going to dishonor my father and mother,” she said. “My father is Colorado, my mother is Colorado.”

Inside the market, Cynthia Acosta, 29, was bagging dried corn kernels that customers typically use to make chipa guasú, or Paraguayan cornbread. She said she planned to vote for Mr. Alegre once again, because she liked his plans to create jobs for young people.

“There are a lot of things that need to change,” she said. “It’s not an easy job for anyone.”


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