PUBLISHED: 7:10 AM, APRIL 1, 2017UPDATED: 12:20 PM, APRIL 1, 2017
ASUNCION – 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.
Earlier, television images showed protesters breaking windows of the Congress and clashing with police, burning tires and removing parts of fences around the building. Police in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets.
Several politicians and journalists were injured, media reported, and Interior Minister Tadeo Rojas said several police were hurt. One member of the lower house of Congress, who had been participating in protests that afternoon, underwent surgery after being hit by rubber bullets.
The number of casualties was unknown.
Cartes called for calm and a rejection of violence in a statement released on Twitter.
“Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to put its best effort into maintaining order in the republic,” he said.
“We must not allow a few barbarians to destroy the peace, tranquility and general wellbeing of the Paraguayan people.”
The unrest coincides with a rare high-level international event in the landlocked South American country. Thousands of businessmen and government officials descended on Asuncion this week for the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual board of governors meeting.
While Paraguay long suffered from political uncertainty, the soy and beef-exporting nation has been attracting investment in agriculture and manufacturing sectors in recent years as Cartes offered tax breaks to foreign investors.
Instability in the country of 6.8 million is a concern for its much larger neighbors Brazil and Argentina.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was monitoring the events.
“I call on political leaders to avoid inciting violence and seek dialogue,” the commission’s regional representative for South America, Amerigo Incalcaterra, said in a statement.
The Senate voted earlier on Friday during a special session in a closed office rather than on the Senate floor. Twenty-five lawmakers voted for the measure, two more than the 23 required for passage in the 45-member upper chamber.
Opponents of the measure, who claim it would weaken Paraguay’s democratic institutions, said the vote was illegal.
The proposal will also require approval by the House, where it appeared to have strong support. A vote which had been expected early on Saturday was called off until the situation calmed down, said the chamber’s president, Hugo Velazquez.
Several Latin American countries, including Paraguay, Peru and Chile, prevent presidents from running for consecutive terms in a region where memories of dictatorships remain ripe.
Others, including Colombia and Venezuela, have changed their constitutions to give sitting presidents a chance at re-election.
Paraguay’s measure would apply to future presidents and Cartes, a soft-drink and tobacco mogul elected to a five-year term in 2013.
His strongest backers want him to be allowed to run for another term, but critics have said a constitutional change aimed at benefiting a sitting president would be unfair.
The change would also apply to former President Fernando Lugo, whose supporters want to be allowed to run for another term.
Congress ousted Lugo in 2012, saying he had failed in his duty to maintain social order following a bloody land eviction. The rapid impeachment drew strong criticism in Latin America, especially from fellow leftist governments.
A similar re-election proposal had been rejected in August and Congress this week voted to change the rules that required lawmakers to wait a year before voting again.
“Everything was done legally,” said Senator Carlos Filizzola of the leftist Guasu Front coalition, which supports the constitutional amendment as a way of allowing Lugo to return as Paraguay’s leader. REUTERS
There have been demonstrations in Venezuela after the Supreme Court took over legislative powers from the National Assembly.
Critics say the development takes the country closer to one-man rule under President Nicolas Maduro.
The Organisation of American States (OAS) described the move as the “final blow to democracy in the country”.
The ruling effectively dissolves the elected legislature which has been dominated by the president’s opponents.
The secretary general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, described the move as a “self-inflicted coup” by Mr Maduro’s government.
It comes after months of consolidation of power by the country’s president, who is locked in a political struggle with the centre-right opposition.
What has happened?
On Thursday the Venezuelan Supreme Court seized power from the opposition-led legislature, a move that could essentially allow it to write laws itself.
The court justified the move by saying the National Assembly’s lawmakers were “in a situation of contempt” after allegations of electoral irregularities by three opposition lawmakers during the 2015 elections.
It did not indicate if or when it might hand power back.
The court had previously backed the leftist president in his struggles with the legislature – on Tuesday removing parliamentary immunity from the Assembly’s members.
The move is the latest example of the socialist President Maduro tightening his grip on power, which critics say he has been doing for months, amid a deepening economic crisis in the country.
The National Assembly’s lawmakers were pictured scuffling with members of the National Guard while protesting outside the court on Thursday.
The Speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Julio Borges, addressed the media outside the legislative palace in Caracas.
He urged the army, which has so far supported the president, to take a stand against him.
In a tweet, jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called on people to take to the streets in order to “reject dictatorship and rescue democracy”.
What has the reaction been?
The crisis has raised international alarm about the stability of Venezuelan demo, which has undergone three attempted military coups since 1992.
The US state department called the court’s move “a serious setback for democracy.”
Most regional powers including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Chile have warned that the action is a threat to Venezuelan democracy.
Leftist-led Bolivia defended President Maduro, who has yet to comment publicly.
Venezuela’s foreign ministry accused critics of the government of forming a right-wing regional pact against President Maduro.
Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez described the OAS is a pawn of US “imperialism”.
“This controversy is over … the constitution has won,” Maduro said in a televised speech just after midnight to a specially convened state security committee that ordered the top court to reconsider its rulings. The Supreme Court duly erased the two controversial judgments during the morning, the information minister said.
In an amusing twist, Maduro tried to cast the U-turn as his own personal achievement, one of a wise statesman resolving a power conflict, everyone and certainly his opponents said it was a hypocritical row-back by an unpopular government that overplayed its hand.
“You can’t pretend to just normalize the nation after carrying out a ‘coup,'” said Julio Borges, leader of the National Assembly legislature, quoted by Reuters. He publicly tore up the court rulings this week and refused to attend the security committee, which includes the heads of major institutions.
While the Supreme Court flip-flop may take the edge off protests, Maduro’s opponents at home and abroad will seek to maintain the pressure. They are furious that authorities thwarted a push for a referendum to recall Maduro last year and also postponed local elections scheduled for 2016. Now they are calling for next year’s presidential election to be brought forward and the delayed local polls to be held, confident the ruling Socialist Party would lose.
“It’s time to mobilize!” student David Pernia, 29, said in western San Cristobal city, adding Venezuelans were fed up with autocratic rule and economic hardship. “Women don’t have food for their children, people don’t have medicines.”