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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Paraguay voters elect conservative economist as president

Supporters of President-elect Santiago Peña celebrate at a victory rally in Asunción, Paraguay following the presidential election on Sunday, April 30, 2023.

By Jack Nicas and Laurence Blair

Paraguayans elected Santiago Peña, a 44-year-old conservative economist, as their new president Sunday, keeping the South American nation in the control of the right-wing Colorado Party that has run the country for all but five of the past 76 years.

The result means that Paraguay, a landlocked nation of 7 million people, has resisted the leftward shift across Latin America in recent years. Instead, Paraguayans delivered victory to a right-wing candidate who made vague promises to add jobs, lower energy prices and clear drug addicts from the street.

Peña had 43% of the vote with 99% of the ballots counted, defeating two challengers who split the opposition vote.

His election could complicate Paraguay’s relationship with the United States, a close ally.

Peña is a political protégé of a former Paraguayan president, Horacio Cartes, who is one of its richest men and the president of the Colorado Party. In January, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Cartes over accusations that he had doled out millions of dollars in bribes to pave his way to power and that he had built ties to the Islamist militant group Hezbollah.

In his victory speech Sunday night, Peña stood next to Cartes, hugged him and thanked him first. “Your contribution, president, can only be paid with the currency of respect, of appreciation and approval,” Peña said. “Thank you for this Colorado victory.”

Peña’s victory shows that his party has retained a firm grip on Paraguayan society decades after the fall of the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, a Colorado Party regime that ruled from 1954 to 1989.

The Colorado Party’s powerful political machine was on display on Election Day, with a dense network of political operators fanned out across the country. They monitored voting stations, bused Indigenous people to the polls and pressed voters to elect Peña.

That organization appeared to make up for the difficult sales pitch Peña had to make to voters. During the campaign, he presented himself as a fresh face — despite being Paraguay’s former finance minister and a prominent figure in the nation’s dominant political party, which was founded in 1887.

Peña also tried to distance himself from Paraguay’s current leader, President Mario Abdo Benítez, who is also from the Colorado Party. Benítez, who cannot run again because of term limits, is one of Latin America’s most unpopular leaders because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to opinion surveys.

But Peña’s trickiest challenge was his close ties to Cartes. The U.S. government has accused Cartes of “a concerted pattern of corruption,” alleging that he paid up to $50,000 a month to lawmakers while president and that he conducted some of his illicit business at events held by Hezbollah.

Cartes has denied the accusations, dismissing them as politically motivated. He declined requests for an interview.

One political opponent, Efraín Alegre, who finished second Sunday with 27%, seized on the allegations during the campaign, calling Cartes the “Paraguayan Pablo Escobar” and saying that Peña was Cartes’s “secretary.”

Peña said in an interview on Friday that he believed Cartes was innocent and that he could not understand how the United States could have gotten it so wrong.

“I think this is going to be one of the great mysteries, along with: Could it be that man reached the moon? Or who assassinated President Kennedy?” he said. “Those unsolved mysteries that we can never know.”

On Sunday night, as he stood next to his mentor, Peña led his victory party in a chant of “Beloved Horacio, the people are with you.”

Peña’s ties to Cartes were on the minds of some voters.

“He’s a good leader, but if he wins, it won’t be him that governs, sadly,” said Mariano Ovelar, 39, who waits tables and plays the keyboard in a truck-stop restaurant in Paraguay’s rural north.

Peña, a former International Monetary Fund economist in Washington, largely focused his campaign on the economy, promising to create 500,000 jobs, offer free kindergarten, decrease fuel and energy prices, and get more police officers on the street.

His only explanation for how he would pay for those promises was to expand the economy by eliminating red tape and keeping taxes among the lowest in the world. “Paraguayans understand that we can be the most developed nation in the world,” Peña said.

Paraguay is one of South America’s poorest nations. A quarter of its population lives in poverty, schools are rated among the worst in the region and hospitals are short on basic medicines.

Peña attributed Paraguay’s underdevelopment to its crushing defeat in a war against its neighbors that ended in 1870 and wiped out most of its male population. “The conflict made us miss the train of development,” he said.

His answer to those problems is to streamline the government and make Paraguay more welcoming to businesses.

Peña appears to be aiming to appease the United States, most notably by pledging to keep Paraguay among the club of 13 countries — mostly small island nations — that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than China. Paraguay and Taiwan sealed ties in 1957, when both were led by dictators, and Taiwan has since paid for Paraguay’s modernist congressional building and donated its presidential jet.

But as a result, Paraguay’s farmers face obstacles in exporting soybeans and beef to China. Peña said in an interview that close economic ties with Taiwan would leave Paraguay in a better long-term position than building its economy around selling commodities to China.

Cristaldo Tabares, 65, a builder who lives in a riverside suburb of the capital, Asunción, said he voted for Peña, but reluctantly. “I like Efraín more than Peña,” he said, referring to the No. 2 finisher.

Tabares wanted to cast his ballot for Alegre because he represented change, he said, “but I couldn’t.” That was because the Colorado Party had employed him as a polling station official and he felt he should vote for his employer.

Asked what he thought of Paraguay’s potential future under Peña, he shrugged and laughed: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

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