Horacio Cartes won a comfortable victory in last weekend's election, putting the long-ruling Colorado Party back in power. But this time it may be a new brand of personality politics.
ASUNCION – Horacio Cartes’ foray into politics was controversial and dizzying at the same time. In just three years, the 56-year-old billionaire businessman went from running a soccer club to being the Presidential candidate for the Colorado Party, the most traditional and powerful party in Paraguay. Now he's set to be the nation's next President.
In order to achieve this, he invested $20 million in his campaign, a figure that represents only a tiny drop of his huge empire.
He always has a serious expression on his face and his social concepts are often rigidly conservative. When a TV program asked him about his stance on same-sex marriage, and said he was against. The interviewer then asked him what he would do if his son told him that he wanted to marry another man. The response was brutal. “I would shoot myself in the balls,” he said, without hesitation.
Cartes speaks his mind. This kind of attitude is what led him away from the progressive sectors of society, while earning him the votes of the social circles that remain rooted in national conservatism. He gained even more fans with his image as a successful businessman who knows how to organize things and give orders.
What he could never shake, however were the rumors that he had conducted shady dealings – such as drug trafficking – that he eluded with a well-oiled legal contingency plan.
Cartes comes from a wealthy family. From his father, who owned the Paraguayan franchise for Cessna aircrafts, he inherited a passion for business. When he finished high school, Cartes went to the U.S. to study aeronautical engineering. At 19, he came back to his country and started a currency exchange business, which quickly grew into the Banco Amambay bank. This was the first pillar of an empire that today counts 25 companies.
His first setback came in the mid 1980s, during the dictatorship of President Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989). He was accused of buying dollars at a preferential rate, which he would then put on the black market. Charges were brought against him, and he went into hiding for four years. When he came back, the case had disappeared.
In the past decade he was investigated in Brazil allegedly smuggling cigarettes into the country. He was never charged, he says proudly. In 2011, a WikiLeaks cable revealed that the DEA had investigated him for alleged ties to drug traffickers. None of this could be proven conclusively.
Before entering politics four years ago, Cartes began as a sports manager. In 2001 he became president of the Club Libertad soccer club, where he led a strong investment campaign. This move garnered him a lot of praise, which would prove determining in his decision to launch into the political competition.
He entered the Colorado Party using his best assets – decisiveness and money. He joined in 2009, a complete novice in the world of politics. Party statutes stated that to be a presidential candidate, he should have been a member of the party for at least ten years. He organized a convention to change the statutes, reducing the requirement to a year. The groundwork was laid.
His arrival in the Colorado Party was met with some resistance, especially from historical leaders. “With Horacio Cartes will start the era of obscenity, of political pornography, and all vices will become explicit.” These harsh words are from former President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who a few months later changed his mind and joined Cartes.
The incoming Paraguayan president has two daughters and a son, products of a long marriage that ended in separation. His sister Sarah now manages his economic empire, allowing the entrepreneur to fully dedicate himself to politics. Skillful, entreprising and bold, Cartes said: “I did not join the party to become rich, I already have everything.”