ASUNCION – Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benitez announced a cabinet reshuffle on Saturday amid a political crisis sparked by protests over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Police used force again on Saturday midnight to disperse a group of people who had gathered in front of the presidential residence to break through the perimeter security barrier.
The incident took place in an area where the United States embassy is also located and amid protests demanding Abdo Benitez to step down.
Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and made about a dozen arrests, officers said.
The group was demanding to meet with Interior Minister Arnaldo Giuzzio.
When he did not appear, they tried to cross the security barrier, one of the protest leaders told the media.
According to police, protesters pelted stones and burst firecrackers in the vicinity of the presidential palace and then retreated after the security forces intervened.
The fresh protests came after Abdo Benitez announced a cabinet reshuffle to make new appointments to the ministries of health, education, women’s issues, and civil affairs.
In a recorded message, the president said the changes to the cabinet were taken “for the sake of peace.”
“I am a person of dialogue, not confrontation, and my commitment is to listen to everyone, both those who approve of our government and those who do not,” he said.
The president pledged that the health ministry would “make every effort to ensure timely supply of medicines to the population with strict respect for existing administrative processes.”
The cabinet changes will affect Education Minister Eduardo Petta, heavily criticized by the teachers and students, and the Minister of Women, Nilda Romero.
The other minister dismissed is the chief of staff, Juan Ernesto Villamayor, who was questioned in Congress in January for a meeting with emissaries of Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s opposition leader.
The meeting, which came into the spotlight after an American media outlet reported it, addressed the reduction of Paraguay’s oil debt to Venezuela’s state company.
Villamayor said it did not materialize in the absence of guarantees that the court in Paris arbitrating the case would validate the agreement.
Julio Borba was announced on Friday as interim health minister in place of Julio Mazzoleni, who resigned amid pressure from protests by medical personnel against the lack of supplies.
Thousands of Paraguayans earlier returned to the streets of Asuncion for the second consecutive day, demanding the resignation of Abdo Benitez’s government.
The protest began after medical personnel and relatives of patients complained this week about the lack of medical supplies and equipment in public hospitals, especially those impacted by the coronavirus.
Before the midnight clash, thousands of participants marched peacefully on Saturday through the heart of Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion, from the Congress building to the headquarters of the Colorado Party via the iconic National Pantheon of Heroes memorial.
They marched to music, carrying national flags and protest banners.
The unanimous cry was for the resignation of the president, Vice President Hugo Velazquez, and the entire cabinet of the current government.
Since the start of the protests, demonstrators, who have gone from a few hundred to thousands with time, have demanded the resignation of Abdo Benitez, whom they associate with the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) since his father was his private secretary.
Police presence on Saturday was low, unlike Friday, without any deployment of riot police or special forces in the vicinity of the protesters.
There was some deployment near the Congress building.
Many Paraguayans believe that many of the country’s ills, including corruption, the lack of development, and education and health, are the product of decades of governments, led by the Colorado Party, except for a legislature in which the opposition ruled.