Men pose for a photo outside the congress building during clashes between police and protesters opposing an approved proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the election of a president to a second term in Asuncion Paraguay on Friday. (AP photo)
Protesters stormed Paraguay’s congress on Friday and set it on fire after senators approved a surprise measure that would allow presidents of the South American nation to be re-elected.
Demonstrations began at the downtown congressional building earlier in the day after news of the vote. Protesters clashed with security forces, who responded with rubber bullets and water hoses in an unsuccessful bid to prevent them from entering the congressional building. Late Friday, the fire had been isolated to one part of the structure but continued to burn.
Paraguay’s lower house is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session on Saturday to vote on the Senate’s bill to allow re-election. Lawmakers said on local television that while they are legally required to meet because of legislative protocol, the re-election measure won’t be discussed.
In an emailed statement, President Horacio Cartes called for calm and said the fire at congress was “the work of those who want to destroy democracy.”
Cartes was elected in 2013 and his term is set to expire in 2018. He has attracted investors’ attention in recent years as economic reforms have sparked growth amid poor performance in South America’s two largest economies. The country was ruled by the dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 until 1989.
Paraguay, the world’s sixth-largest beef exporter, is hosting ministers and central bankers from across the region in Asuncion this weekend for the Inter American Development Bank’s annual meeting. Mexican Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade and his Argentine counterpart Luis Caputo are among top officials who are attending.
Before the Senate’s vote, Finance Minister Santiago Pena sought to reassure investors that efforts to change the constitution were part of an ongoing political conversation that has stretched for more than 10 years and weren’t a cause for concern.
The government of Cartes sold US$500 million in bonds to international investors last week and wants to continue issuing debt overseas. He has portrayed his nation as a fast-growing alternative to Argentina and Brazil, where growth has floundered in recent years.
Paraguay’s gross domestic product surged an average of 6.5% annually from 2010 through 2015, according to data from the World Bank. The country has used a 2000 law that eases the import of goods for assembly to attract Brazilian investment.
Among the major Brazilian firms that have recently set up operations across the border are fashion group Guararapes and toymaker Estrela. US brands such as Forever 21 and McDonald’s also operate in the country.
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