Paraguay president-elect apologizes for gay slurs

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) - Paraguay's president-elect, Horacio Cartes, said on Monday that he'll urge Congress to approve Venezuela's entry into Mercosur, and he apologized for making anti-gay comments during the campaign.

A millionaire businessman, Cartes said he transferred his interests in his dozens of companies before the campaign began to avoid conflicts of interests after he takes office on Aug. 15.

Cartes said his sister Sarah now runs the family's businesses, which include vast plantations of soy, tobacco and ranching to a soft drink distributor, Paraguay's Banco Amambay and the nation's championship football team, Libertad.

"In our government there won't be anything that isn't in the public interest, and none of my relatives will be in the administration," Cartes said at his first news conference, the day after winning the presidency with nearly 46 per cent of the vote against six competitors.

Cartes, 56, is one of Paraguay's biggest employers and revenue producers. His tobacco company alone pays US$146 million (S$181 million) a year in taxes to the government.

But he's faced allegations of a darker side to his businesses. The newspaper ABC in Asuncion published an article recently describing seizures of marijuana and cocaine on his properties. A secret 2007 United States Embassy cable, published online by WikiLeaks, reported to Washington that Hugo Ibarra, Paraguay's drug czar at the time, alleged that Cartes and Banco Amambay were responsible for 80 percent of money laundering in Paraguay.

Asked on Monday if he's involved in money laundering, drugs or cigarette smuggling, Cartes said: "Go to judicial power and check. There's nothing, there's not a single complaint against me. I've been a public figure for years in football, but as soon as I enter politics, all these stories surface, spread by bad people."

His victory will return the conservative Colorado Party to the presidency it held for 61 years before former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo was swept into office in 2008 on promises of land reform. A bloody struggle over land gave the Colorados and their allies the ammunition they needed to impeach the left-leaning Lugo last year, before his five-year term was over.

While that impeachment followed Paraguay's constitution, its neighbors called it a threat to democracy and suspended Paraguay's membership in the Mercosur bloc. Then, the leaders of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay took advantage of Paraguay's absence to bring Venezuela into the trade group against Paraguay's wishes.

Cartes said it's time to mend fences.

"This friendly tone is important. The suspension of Paraguay in Mercosur and Unasur belongs to another political context. I want to look ahead. Venezuela is a huge market," he said. "My thoughts on this are known to the lawmakers of my party who will take seats in the new Congress." Cartes' conciliatory position contrasted with that of Jose Antonio Moreno, who leads the Colorado Party's foreign relations commission.

"The punishment dictated in June was unjust and illegal because impeachment is a constitutional act and Paraguay did not violate any democratic principles," Moreno said. Instead, it's Mercosur that "should resolve what to do with Venezuela, whose entry was illegal because it lacked the approval of Paraguay." Cartes also referred to anti-gay comments he had made, saying: "I have no shame in apologizing to those who felt offended for an expression of mine with respect to same-sex marriage."

During the campaign, Cartes said marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

"Everyone should live within the rules. If not, we'd be like the monkeys that swing in the trees," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.