ASUNCION (Reuters) - President-elect Horacio Cartes is one of Paraguay’s wealthiest men and, in a country infamous for corruption, some voters hope that means they will have a leader who is not tempted to steal.
Brash and ambitious, Cartes had never voted before joining the center-right Colorado Party four years ago. But he managed to convince his party and voters that his business experience would be enough to lead the South American country.
“Cartes doesn’t have to steal because he has money,” 38-year-old hospital security guard Fernando Franco said. “I don’t think he’s assuming the presidency specifically to steal. But I don’t know about the people who surround him.”
Cartes won Sunday’s election with about 46 percent support, well ahead of the 37 percent for the ruling Liberal Party’s Efrain Alegre. Cartes will take over as president in August.
Paraguay has a long history of political instability and nearly 40 percent of its 6.6 million people are poor.
Cartes said his daughter urged him not to run. He told her Paraguay and God gave him everything, so it was time to give back.
“I’ve asked people’s forgiveness for dedicating myself just to making money. For me, for me, for me,” he told local television last month.
Cartes, 56, grew up in the sleepy riverside capital of Asuncion. As a teenager, he imported airplane parts for his father’s Cessna franchise and later studied aviation in the United States.
Upon returning to Paraguay, he got into the financial business. He controls about 25 companies, including Amambay bank, Paraguay’s biggest cigarette maker and a popular soft drinks factory. He is also president of the Libertad soccer club, one of the country’s best.
“He’s a businessman who rose from the bottom. I think he’ll be able to keep people from stealing, as he does at his companies. Because if we don’t get out of this rut now, we won’t ever get out,” said Manuel Castillo, a doorman in Asuncion.
The Colorado Party saw in Cartes a chance to revamp its image, sullied by corruption during a 60-year reign that included Gen. Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year dictatorship.
That run in power ended when leftist candidate Fernando Lugo was elected president in 2008. But Lugo was impeached last year after Congress found him guilty of mishandling a land eviction in which 17 police and peasant farmers were killed.
Before the Colorados united behind Cartes’ candidacy, they forced the outspoken businessman to dispel accusations from rivals linking him to drug trafficking and money laundering.
In 2011, WikiLeaks published a U.S. diplomatic cable that referred to a regional drug-trafficking ring that supposedly included some of his companies.
Cartes has never been convicted of a crime and flatly denies any wrongdoing. On Sunday, before voting began, he said the allegations had “no truth to them” and would pass into history as mere campaign anecdotes.
In the mid-1980s, Stroessner’s government brought charges against Cartes over illegal currency dealings. He went into hiding for four years and was jailed briefly when he turned himself into police in 1989. The charges were later dropped.
“We weren’t the ones who obtained preferential dollars ... people in Stroessner’s circle did,” Cartes has said.
Cartes is Catholic and often refers to God in his public comments. He has three children and is separated from his wife.
He is against abortion and same-sex marriage. He recently referred to heterosexuality as “normality” and said, “let’s stay normal.” He also said, “I’d shoot myself in the balls” if his son wanted to marry another man, sparking complaints from groups that fight homophobia.
Cartes has vowed to bring in more private capital to fund crucial infrastructure projects as well as improve operations at state-run companies and modernize a bloated state bureaucracy, which employs about 10 percent of all workers.
Paraguay’s civil service is dominated by the Colorado Party and many posts are doled out as favors. Cartes has vowed to end the nepotism and mend his party’s ways.
“I may have to use my own resources to keep the troops happy,” Cartes said, “but no one is going to keep me from modernizing the state.”
Additional reporting by Mariel Cristaldo; Editing by Kieran Murray and Stacey Joyce