Things are heating up in the capital of Paraguay (Asuncion) and around other parts of the country… literally. Protesters took to the streets and set fire to the Senate building on Friday night, leading to riot police being deployed to try to get the crowds under control. As CNBC News is reporting today, it all stems from a secret vote taken in the Senate which would alter the relatively young democracy’s constitution.
Protesters stormed and set fire to Paraguay’s Congress on Friday after the Senate secretly voted for a constitutional amendment that would allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election.
The country’s constitution has prohibited re-election since it was passed in 1992 after a brutal dictatorship fell in 1989.
“A coup has been carried out. We will resist and we invite the people to resist with us,” said Senator Desiree Masi from the opposition Progressive Democratic Party.
Firefighters managed to control the flames after protesters left the Congress building late on Friday night. But protests and riots continued in other parts of Asuncion and elsewhere in the country well into the night, media reported.
There’s massive confusion and not all that many international reporters on the ground, so some of the details remain sketchy at this point. But the fundamentals of the story appear to agree in most sources. Something very shady took place in Paraguay, with some sort of “secret session” of the Senate being called in a private room, rather than on the floor of their legislative hall in public view. A slim majority of the Senators voted to change the constitution, allowing President Horacio Cartes to run for reelection.
Keep in mind that this wasn’t a move to extend his presidency… just to allow him to run. But like many South American countries, Paraguay has relatively fresh memories of brutal dictators who were never fond of giving up power once they attained it, so the citizens are rightly gun shy about seeing anyone sticking around for too long.
This sort of constitutional shuffling around is uncomfortably reminiscent of the current situation to the north in Venezuela. Just yesterday we were looking at the way the Supreme Court there (which is basically wholly owned and operated by President Maduro) essentially disbanded the legislature in what appears to be yet another power grab. Both of these “constitutional modifications” are taking place without any sort of referendum being put before the people. This might remind some of you of the power grab currently taking place in Turkey, but at least Recep Tayyip Erdogan is putting his promotion to dictator to a vote next month. Sure… he’s rounding up everyone who doesn’t like the idea and tossing them in dungeons, but at least he’s going through the window dressing of a referendum first.
These are disturbing times to say the least. South America was mostly stable for quite a while since the 90s, though with a few glaring exceptions. But Venezuela and Paraguay are both in trouble right now and if that creates some sort of additional refugee crisis for Brazil and Bolivia, this is the sort of thing which can metastasize quickly.