Paraguay’s president asks all ministers to resign after protests

Mario Abdo Benitez is expected to announce changes to his cabinet after citizens protest handling of COVID-19 pandemic.

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez's government is facing mounting anger over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic [File:Reuters]

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez has asked all cabinet ministers to resign following clashes between demonstrators and police at protests against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The country’s communications minister, Juan Manuel Brunetti, said on Saturday the president asked “all the members of the cabinet to give up their positions”.

“The president … will surely speak today with the citizenry. He [will] announce the changes, but we want all the citizens to know and understand is that their message has reached the president,” he said.

Abdo Benitez respects peaceful protests and calls for peace, Brunetti added.

Paraguayans protest against President Mario Abdo Benitez’s health policies and the lack of COVID-19 vaccines in Asuncion [Cesar Olmedo/Reuters]

Clashes broke out on Friday evening between protesters and police in the centre of the capital, Asuncion. Rioters hurled stones at the officers, who in turn used rubber bullets and tear gas.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Saturday expressed concerns over reports that police used excessive force against people during the protests, while calling on the authorities to investigate complaints of human rights violations.

The demonstrations came amid growing outrage over a surging COVID-19 pandemic in Paraguay, where infections hit record levels and hospitals have been pushed to the brink of collapse.

Protesters rallied outside the Congress building to demand the resignation of Abdo Benitez.

On Thursday, the Senate adopted a resolution calling for Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni to step down over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Mazzoleni had been under attack from legislators, including some from the governing party, and by health worker unions. On Friday, Mazzoleni announced after a meeting with the president that he had submitted his resignation.

Health workers of the Hospital de Clinicas stand with a mock coffin reading ‘Corruption kills’, as they protest the healthcare system collapse, in San Lorenzo, Paraguay [Cesar Olmedo/Reuters]

Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler, reporting from Buenos Aires, Argentina, said the president is facing pressure from citizens and the political opposition to step down himself.

“He’s really under pressure, really to answer those criticisms from his people. [There are] demonstrations … in the capital Asuncion almost every night now,” Schweimler said.

Meanwhile, the country’s health system is in trouble, as the government recently said there is a shortage of important drugs to treat COVID-19 patients and that almost all intensive care unit beds at public hospitals were full.

“We are in a critical situation,” health ministry spokesman Hernan Martinez recently said.

“Let’s avoid crowds. It is the only thing that can save us from the collapse of healthcare.”

Paraguay has reported more than 165,800 cases of COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and more than 3,200 people have died due to the coronavirus.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies