Paraguay 'coup': death of activist threatens to reignite protests

Laurence Blair in Asunción

The death of an activist involved in demonstrations that swept across Paraguay threatened to reignite violent protests in the country on Saturday that have already resulted in hundreds of arrests and left scores wounded.

Relative calm returned to the streets of Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, on Saturday morning after fierce protests over behind-the-scenes constitutional wrangling that will allow the president, Horacio Cartes, to run for office again in 2018.

The political manoeuvring – decried as a “coup d’etat” by opposition parties – sparked violent protests in the capital and ended in demonstrators storming the country’s congress and setting it on fire.

But the death of a 25-year-old activist during a police raid of the headquarters of the opposition Liberal party (PLRA) looked set to provoke more protests over the weekend.

Sporadic clashes between protesters and riot police outside the small South American country’s legislative palace on Friday afternoon also resulted in Efraín Alegre – the president of the Liberal party – being injured and carried away by colleagues.

Police fired rubber bullets and used water cannon to clear the area. Afterwards, protests were peaceful until nightfall, when small groups of demonstrators – some of them with T-shirts covering their faces – edged iron barriers closer towards congress, setting debris on fire, throwing stones, and aiming fireworks over the heads of police.

The security forces gradually pulled back to form a tight cordon around congress, occasionally sparking scrambles for cover by firing teargas canisters into the crowd.

But in an unexpected move, the police gradually withdrew within and around the sides of the building, allowing protesters to storm up the steps, break windows and doors and enter the building. Protests are usually fiercely repressed if they come too close to the building itself.

For around 90 minutes, the protesters revelled in their victory, singing the national anthem, throwing sheaves of parliamentary papers out into the air and releasing fireworks. A small group of young men started a fire among the shattered glass of the northeast corner of the building.

The police eventually returned in force. A series of charges by a mounted division, armed with teargas launchers and batons eventually cleared the square shortly before midnight.

Skirmishes then spread to nearby streets, with protesters lighting fires in the street and engaging in running battles with police around historic landmarks. Later, a unit of armed police – who claimed to be pursuing a group of violent demonstrators – approached the headquarters of the Liberal party.

Witnesses told the Guardian that the police started shooting at the building’s windows without warning, causing an assembled crowd of around 50 young activists – as well as congressional deputies and councillors – to take refuge inside.

Rodrigo Quintana, 25, was reportedly shot during a confrontation with police, and was confirmed dead at hospital soon afterwards.

“They just entered, shouting and shooting,” said Oliva Paredes, a young party member who barricaded herself in an upstairs room when the police entered. “The police grabbed the people who stayed down here and shoved them on the ground, yelling at them and kicking them. Then we heard a shot,” she added.

Quintana, the president of the local Liberal party chapter in the small town of La Colmena, had reportedly come to Asunción to take part in the protests. His death – and the overnight detention of over 200 protesters in the capital alone – has already provoked comparisons with the fatal shooting of several pro-democracy activists in the square outside congress 18 years ago this week, an iconic moment in Paraguay’s gradual return to democracy.

Paraguay awoke on Saturday morning to an uncertain political panorama and a police force on maximum alert. The blaze in congress had been put out and a few firefighters picked their way through the broken glass.

Opponents of re-election have lodged appeals against the would-be amendment in court, but in a country with close ties between the executive and judiciary this is a desperate last roll of the dice.

Many Paraguayans are in favour of re-election eventually being passed via a gradual, deliberative constitutional reform. Pro-Cartes sources have meanwhile maintained that an amendment and a referendum is the most democratic way to decide the contentious issue of re-election.

But the furtive manner in which the Cartes administration has sought to change the constitution seems to have antagonised Paraguayans of all political sectors.

Government sources argued that the policy of re-election was backed by the Colorado party congress by a huge majority and as such enjoyed a significant mandate. They repeated President Cartes’ argument that politicians and powerful media interests opposed to re-election were responsible for inciting a climate of fear and leading the protests.

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