Paraguay President Upends Cabinet Amid Protests Over Covid

Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benitez said Saturday he will name new cabinet ministers amid unrest over his government’s handling of the pandemic that has left at least one person dead.

In an address to the nation, Abdo Benitez said he would name a new cabinet chief as well as new health and education ministers in the coming hours “for the sake of peace.”

More changes to the cabinet will be evaluated next week, he said, adding that the new health minister will have the mandate to “make all possible efforts to guarantee the timely supply of medicine and medical supplies.”

Paraguay President Upends Cabinet Amid Protests Over Covid

Protests over his handling of the health crisis on Friday in the capital, Asuncion, led to the cabinet reshuffling and are shaping up to be the biggest test of Abdo Benitez’s presidency since a controversial electricity deal with Brazil almost led to his impeachment in 2019. Abdo Benitez, whose five-year term ends in 2023, already replaced or reassigned more than half a dozen ministers and senior government officials before Saturday’s announcement.

Public frustration has boiled over in normally peaceful Paraguay following shortages of key drugs in public hospitals and the lack of vaccines.

More Protest

On Saturday, thousands of people poured into the streets of downtown Asuncion for a second night, chanting “leave Marito,” in reference to the president’s nickname.

Protests Friday night saw confrontations between a small number of violent demonstrators and police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. At least one person died, according to newspaper Ultima Hora.

Paraguay President Upends Cabinet Amid Protests Over Covid

Covid cases and deaths have surged since July as the government largely reopened its economy in a nod to the country’s informal sector that employs about two thirds of the workforce.

Senior opposition leaders including senator and ex-president Fernando Lugo of the left-wing Guasu Front have called for the impeachment or resignation of the president and Vice President Hugo Velazquez. The opposition would need the backing of lawmakers from the ruling Colorado Party for the impeachment to be successful.

Families Struggle

The government ran up a deficit of 6.5% of GDP in 2020 to fund social programs and shore up a weakened public health system, yet many families of Covid-19 patients have turned to the black market to buy sedatives and other medicine. In some cases those drugs were reportedly stolen from state hospitals.

Meanwhile, the government’s efforts to obtain vaccines have so far yielded just 24,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V and Coronavac shots for a population of 7 million people.

Former Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni resigned Friday after the Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling for his ouster over his handling of the crisis.

The central bank expects Paraguay’s economy to expand 4% this year, after contracting less than 1% in 2020, thanks to a massive dose of fiscal and monetary stimulus.

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