Conservative businessman Horacio Cartes was sworn in as president of Paraguay on Thursday, amid slowly improving relations with South American neighbors, and Mercosur members, damaged by the 2012 removal of populist President Fernando Lugo, who was impeached on incompetence.
Cartes, 57, whose election on April 21 returned to power the Colorado party which has dominated the country’s politics for decades, took the oath of office in the gardens of the presidential palace. He used his inaugural address to pledge a war on poverty in a country where 39% of the seven-million people are poor despite its huge agriculture and energy resources.
If in five years, we haven't substantially reduced poverty, all our work will have been for nothing said Cartes who prayed for wisdom, prudence and justice to fulfill my duty to serve the noble Paraguayan people.
He also reached out to the leaders of neighboring states attending the ceremony, saying his strong predisposition is to maintain cordial bilateral relations rather than aggravate differences of the moment.
Our intention is that we become closer. Understanding and cooperation honor us, he said.
Conspicuously absent at Cartes' inauguration was Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, a close ally of Lugo who was pointedly not invited to the ceremony, despite the fact Venezuela currently holds the rotating chair of Mercosur.
However the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Peru were there, signaling an end to the regional ostracism Paraguay experienced in the wake of the political crisis two years ago.
Nevertheless Maduro sent Cartes a letter of congratulations, pledging to do everything in his power for a prompt return of Paraguay to Mercosur.
Paraguay was suspended from Mercosur in June 2012 after its Congress impeached and forced out Lugo, who was blamed for the deaths of 17 people in a clash between police and armed landless peasants occupying a private farm.
Mercosur presidents during their latest summit last July in Montevideo said that the organization was lifting the suspension on 15 August, Cartes' inauguration day, but Paraguay has been reluctant and does not accept the way Venezuela was incorporated to the trade block.
Nevertheless Cartes met separately with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, Chile's President Sebastian Piñera, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez and following the inauguration with Uruguay's President Jose Mujica and Peru's President Ollanta Humala.
Cartes is among the richest families in Paraguay with interests in tobacco, agriculture, banking, aircraft rental, retail, construction and has been on several occasions accused of smuggling and money laundering. At one time he was targeted by the DEA suspecting the origin of the monies laundered, mostly tax elusion.
Cartes replaces Federico Franco, a Liberal party leader who has led the country since Lugo's removal. Franco was Lugo’s Vice-president as part of the catch all coalition which defeated the discredited Colorado party for the first time ever. But Lugo (a former Catholic bishop) showed lack of political talent and inspiration and was left on his own when the coalition that supported him collapsed.