Paraguay re-election Bill sparks deadly protest

Opposition demonstrations more solemn in Asuncion after the death of a protester who was shot with a rubber bullet by police.
Protesters setting fire to the Congress building during a demonstration against a possible change in the law to allow for presidential re-election, in Asuncion, Paraguay, last Friday.
Protesters setting fire to the Congress building during a demonstration against a possible change in the law to allow for presidential re-election, in Asuncion, Paraguay, last Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS

ASUNCION (Paraguay) • Protesters in Paraguay have stormed the Congress and set fire to part of the building after the Senate voted to amend the Constitution to allow President Horacio Cartes to seek re-election, raising concerns over renewed political instability.

To chants of "Dictatorship never again!", hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police and broke into the Congress building, battering down entrances and fences and shattering windows.

Once inside, the demonstrators ransacked the offices of lawmakers who backed the reform and started fires, television images showed. Flames could be seen coming from large parts of the building. Police used mounted units and water cannon to try and disperse the rioters.

Calm was restored around midnight last Friday (noon Singapore time yesterday) at the building, where large numbers of police remained on alert.

But protests and riots continued in other parts of Asuncion and elsewhere in the country well into the night, media reported.

The unrest late last Friday left one protester dead and about 30 people injured, including three lawmakers, according to firefighters and an opposition senator. More than 200 people were detained by the police, Telefuturo Television reported.

Mr Cartes' allies in the Upper House of the legislature passed the Bill last Friday, sidestepping resistance from opponents who say that it clears the way for dictatorships.

"A coup has been carried out. We will resist and we invite the people to resist with us," said Senator Desiree Masi from the opposition Progressive Democratic Party.

The tension over efforts to amend the Constitution in favour of Mr Cartes, a conservative tobacco magnate elected to a five-year term in 2013, reveal how Paraguay remains shaken by the 35-year dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989.

In a twist, supporters of former president Fernando Lugo, who was ousted in 2012 and is now a senator, have also backed the re-election amendment, spurring speculation that he may stand to benefit from the measure if he mounts a successful bid for the presidency next year.

The measure was scheduled to be considered yesterday in the Lower House Chamber of Deputies, where the president has a majority.

But after the rioting, Chamber president Hugo Velazquez announced that the vote was postponed, and said he was shocked by the violence. "I hope that calm and harmony will return," Mr Velazquez said in a televised message.

Mr Cartes labelled the demonstrators "barbarians", and blamed the violence on "a group of Paraguayans embedded in politics, and the media aimed at destroying democracy and political and economic stability".

"Democracy is not won or defended by violence," he said on his Twitter account. "We continue to live in a state of law and we must not allow barbarians to destroy the peace, tranquillity and welfare of the people."

NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'Paraguay re-election Bill sparks deadly protest'. Print Edition | Subscribe