Paraguay: Stormy First Month for New President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Mario Abdo Benítez

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez. / Marcos Corrêa / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over a month into his five-year term, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez is already being challenged by corruption scandals – including allegations against himself – and internal party squabbling, but he is continuing efforts to build his image as an ambitious reformer.  While emphasizing continuity with the previous administration’s economic policies – focusing on export-fueled growth, low taxes, and domestic investment – Abdo Benítez’s push for certain reforms is ruffling feathers.

  • In the wake of protests against highly publicized corruption and influence-trafficking cases involving national legislators and top judges, Abdo Benítez based his campaign on a pledge to fight government and judicial corruption though deep reforms. In his inauguration speech, he called for immediate priority to be given to comprehensive reform of the national judicial system.  Three days after taking office, he called on all political parties – including those without representation in the National Congress – to join a national debate on constitutional reform.

The president, however, faces a number of challenges to his image and leadership.

  • During the campaign, he distanced himself from the legacy of his father, who was a top aide to Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), but a visit he made to his father’s grave after voting on election day and his use of Stroessner’s white Chevrolet on inauguration day fueled apprehensions about his commitment to democracy.
  • He is being buffeted by allegations that he has ties with drug traffickers. Social media have publicized a picture of the president in his home with his arm around drug kingpin Reinaldo Javier “Cucho” Cabaña, who was arrested earlier this month.  He has denied receiving money from Cabaña and said that he did not recognize the man – that he had taken “millions of photos” with sympathizers who came to his house to express support during the campaign.
  • One of his closest allies in the congress, Ulises Quintana, was also indicted this month for alleged involvement in “Cucho’s” international drug trafficking network. Another close ally facing corruption charges is Miguel Cuevas, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, who stands accused of illicit enrichment while in office and who has become the new main target of the anti-corruption protest groups.
  • A faction within his party, the Cartistas —allies of former President Horacio Cartes – has been holding back on support Abdo Benítez’s reforms. They claim his call for inclusive debate, rather than negotiating directly with them before opening to other parties, was a sign of bad faith, and they have not agreed to join the talks.
  • The president also faces challenges from the opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), whose leader says he supports reforming the constitution, even drafting a new one, but that it should be based on a “national agenda” – not only Abdo Benítez’s priorities. PLRA and other parties are concerned that a key purpose of the reforms is open the way to presidential reelection, which has long been a goal of the Cartistas.  They also claim the president is appointing cronies to positions that require technical expertise, such as management posts at the Itaipú power plant on the Brazil-Argentina border.

Abdo Benítez’s commitment to reforms may be mostly rhetorical – his bottom line seems mostly about continuity – but the political threats that they entail could get out of control and spark protests.  Six weeks into his presidency, he seems unlikely to rally the domestic support necessary to enact deep reforms to make the electoral, political, and judicial processes more open and transparent.  He may find some comfort in the fact that neighboring presidents – Michel Temer in Brazil, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and Evo Morales in Bolivia – all have their hands full too, and that, if anything, the region’s turn to the right during elections since 2015 means that he is not likely to be isolated politically.  As a new president, however, Abdo Benítez has to be wondering what the next five years hold.

September 27, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.