ASUNCION, PARAGUAY —
President Horacio Cartes fired Paraguay’s interior minister and top police official Saturday following the death of a young opposition party leader and violent overnight clashes sparked by a secret Senate vote for a constitutional amendment to allow presidential re-election.
Dozens of people, including a police officer, were arrested Friday evening in demonstrations that saw protesters break through police lines and enter the first floor of Paraguay’s legislature, setting fire to papers and furniture. Police used water cannon and fired rubber bullets to drive protesters away from the building while firefighters extinguished blazes inside.
Death at opposition party offices
In the early hours Saturday, 25-year-old Rodrigo Quintana was shot and killed at the headquarters of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, a different location than the congress building where most of the protests took place. Anti-riot police with rifles and their heads and faces covered by helmets had stormed the opposition headquarters amid the anti-government protests.
Security camera footage showed people in a corridor running desperately from police and Quintana falling to the ground, apparently hit from behind. Seconds later, a policeman carrying a gun is seen stepping on Quintana, who is face down on the ground.
Before his dismissal, police commander Crispulo Sotelo identified Gustavo Florentin as the police agent responsible for Quintana’s death and said he had been arrested. Later Saturday, Cartes announced that he had accepted the resignations of Sotelo and Interior Minister Miguel Tadeo Rojas.
“I submit to a self-criticism because we politicians have not been able to settle our differences with dialogue and peace,” Cartes said in a message posted on his Facebook account hours after the dismissal of Rojas and Sotelo. “It hurts me that civilians and police officers were injured.”
Amendment sparks protests
The protests broke out after a majority of senators approved the amendment allowing for presidential re-election, a move opponents said was illegal because the vote was taken without all members of the Senate present. Presidents are limited to a single 5-year term and the proposal would allow Cartes and Paraguay’s previous presidents to run for the top job again in the 2018 election — a hot button issue in a country haunted by the 35-year rule of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
“My colleagues have carried out a coup because of the irregular and illegal manner in which they modified no less than the Constitution,” Sen. Luis Alberto Wagner of the opposition Authentic Radical Liberal Party said after the Friday evening vote.
The U.S. Embassy in Paraguay released a statement saying any change to the constitution should be done “in a transparent and open” fashion, respecting the democratic process and institutions. It called on Paraguay’s political actors to work together to overcome their differences.
The process to pass the amendment began Tuesday when 25 senators changed the internal procedures to speed up the vote against the wishes of Senate President Roberto Acevedo and other members of the chamber.
Acevedo, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, said that process violated Senate rules and he filed an appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to have the decision overturned.
Fears of a dictatorship
Political analyst Ignacio Martinez said the extreme reaction to the move likely lies in fears of another long-running government like that of Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay from 1954-1989 after a military coup.
The measure for a constitutional amendment allowing for presidential re-election was backed by 25 of the country’s 45 senators. The yes votes came from members of the governing Colorado Party and from several opposition groups.
After approval in the Senate, the proposal goes to the Chamber of Deputies, where 44 of the 80 members belong to the Colorado Party. Approval there would require the scheduling of a national referendum on the amendment.
Because of the violence, Saturday’s and Monday’s sessions of the Chamber were canceled. “We will evaluate the situation on Tuesday,” said legislative president Hugo Velazquez.
Cartes said that Vice Minister of Internal Security Lorenzo Lezcano would replace Rojas as interior minister, and police subcommander Luis Carlos Rojas would take over for Sotelo.