A line of police was guarding the entrance to the mansion of former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes at dawn last Monday (8), when a demonstration, initially peaceful, began to become tense.
The stones flew and the officers raised their shields for protection. They responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. The vehicle stopped there warmed up the engine, suggesting that it could start moving over the protesters. There was a rush and, half an hour later, the situation calmed down.
One detail, however, was unknown to most of the protesters: Cartes was not even at home.
In the days leading up to the acts that asked him to support the start of the political trial of the current president, Mario Abdo Benítez, – who was to influence the votes of the deputies he controls in Congress – Cartes embarked on a private plane with his family.
Its destination was unknown and it could have been any of its homes and resorts in the interior of the country. The best known, in the Chaco region, has a private lake with an island in the middle, according to local media.
In recent years, the richest man in the country has only extended his power. The current government, which is facing the second serious crisis in a little over two years, remains standing only because Cartes is the guarantor.
Parliamentarians who are part of his political group, Honor Colorado – the majority party of the Colorado Party, of which Abdo Benítez is a member, ensure that an impeachment process does not take place, as the Genuine Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) and its members want few allies.
Today Colorado has 56 out of a total of 80 congressmen, but they are divided. More than 40 of them are part of the wing controlled by Cartes, while just over ten remain loyal to Abdo Benítez. Power in the legend is even more fragmented as current MP Hugo Velázquez, who has presidential intentions in 2023, stole support between the first two groups.
One of the aspects that has captured the most attention in Cartes’ trajectory is that, although he has been the target of serious denunciations and is currently under investigation, he has always managed to do so. In the rare cases where he became a defendant, he was acquitted. In the one conviction, the lawsuit was subsequently quashed.
In 1985 he was convicted of evading $ 34 million through bribes at the Central Bank. To avoid jail, he was on the run for four years. Upon his return home, he appealed and, ultimately, in 2008, the Supreme Court of Justice acquitted him.
The former president of Paraguay between 2013 and 2018 was also the subject of an arrest warrant in Brazil, for alleged involvement in Lava Jato. In November 2019, however, the STJ quashed the order and granted him habeas corpus. Cartes’s name appeared in an international money laundering program in the plea of money changer Darío Messer, who was a fugitive in Paraguay and was arrested in São Paulo.
In the United States, the Paraguayan is under investigation by the DEA, the US drug control agency, for allegations of money laundering from drug trafficking. There has not yet been a conclusion to this process. In Paraguay, he was prosecuted for using some of his properties inside the country as an airstrip and storage site for drugs. This lawsuit, however, has been shelved.
Businessman who works in several fields and majority shareholder in 25 companies in the fields of tobacco, beverages, construction, drugs and food, among others, Cartes has also seen his name linked to the smuggling of cigarettes. In an interview with Folha in 2015, he denied the accusation, but admitted that “the border between Brazil and Paraguay is very difficult to control”.
The Paraguayan politician began his business career helping his father as a representative of the aircraft manufacturer Cessna. Then he went to study in the USA to specialize in the technical field of the aeronautical industry. Back in Paraguay, in 1979, he founded a foreign exchange company, which soon became a bank, Amambay, today one of the main banks in the country and which still belongs to him.
Cartes owes much of its popularity to its stint in the world of football. In 2001, he was elected president of Libertad and rebuilt the club’s stadium. In 2010, when he became selection director for the Paraguayan Football Association, he entered politics. Until then, he hadn’t even voted – he had made his first voter registration that year.
The colorados parted ways when he arrived. On the one hand, there was a wing excited by the arrival of a boss in the party, out of power since the election of leftist Fernando Lugo in 2008.
On the other hand, there was resistance from the old guard – more linked to the farmers and landowners of the interior and to the Catholic Church – because Cartes was not of this lineage and surrounded himself with people from his companies, a characteristic that accompanied him during the Presidency, in which the main positions were occupied by directors and administrators of their companies, leaving aside some of the partners.
The 2013 victory was in part due to a power vacuum left by Lugo’s withdrawal in 2012. Cartes sold the rhetoric that if his businesses were run well he would run the country well as well. He ended up beating his main rival, Efraín Alegre of PLRA, by 45.83% against 37.09%.
The leadership has been well received by the market and the international community for bringing stability to politics and the economy. Paraguay has recorded good macroeconomic performance and sustained GDP growth with annual rates above 4%. The country’s main shortcomings, which now appear most strongly during the coronavirus pandemic, have persisted, however. There has also been no major investment in public health, which protesters today are referring to. In the streets of Asunción, during the acts, there were signs that said: “Cartes has built bridges for its contraband, but not hospitals for our health”.
His power as president, however, was not unlimited. At the end of his term, he attempted to amend an amendment to the Constitution to allow for his re-election. The amendment was passed in the middle of the night, without the presence of the opposition, but the maneuver sparked a huge revolt in the country. Protesters went to Congress and set part of the building on fire, injuring them. A few days later, he announced that he would not participate in 2018.
Some parents of Cartes are involved in bribery schemes. His uncle, Juan Domingo Cartes, was jailed for six years in Brazil for drug trafficking. Extradited to Paraguay, he is now on the run.
The election of Abdo Benítez in 2018 was a setback for the former president, as his candidate in the Colorado party was former Economy Minister Santiago Peña. Marito, as Abdo Benítez is called, won the primaries and became legend’s old guard option to remove Cards from power.
But the strategy is not working. The current president has worn himself out with public opinion, first because of the economic adjustments he tried to impose to take over and, now, facing criticism over the handling of the pandemic. In addition, on the political flank, Abdo Benítez suffered a major defeat in 2019, with the episode of the change of status of the Itaipu hydroelectric plant, which brought the population to the streets.
There, the Paraguayan leader was the target of the first deportation attempt, but he had the support of the Brazilian government and the deputies of Honor Colorado. It has since been hijacked by Cartes.
The next presidential election takes place in 2023.