Santiago Pena, a former central banker, has won Paraguay’s presidential election, seeing off a strong challenge from centre-left leader Efrain Alegre.
The former International Monetary Fund (IMF) economist, who was hand-picked by the powerful head of the country’s dominant political force, the conservative Colorado Party, scored a strong victory in presidential elections on Sunday.
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Pena, 44, secured 43 percent of the vote to 27.5 percent for Alegre, according to preliminary results from the nation’s electoral court.
“Today, we are not celebrating a personal triumph. We are celebrating the victory of a people who with their vote chose the path of social peace, dialogue, fraternity and national reconciliation,” Pena said in his victory speech, adding that there was “a lot to do”, particularly in reviving the economy.
“The time has come to postpone our differences to prioritise the common causes that unite us as a nation,” he said.
Pena will take office on August 15.
A fresh face of institutional power
Quick to smile and described as affable, Pena is the fresh face of an old institution.
Known as “Santi”, he became a father at the age of 17 when his now-wife Leticia Ocampos became pregnant.
Early parenthood did not stop him from furthering his education, but he said it was a “difficult” time that helped shape his political career.
“It led me to build on very solid principles of commitment, of responsibility, of honesty, of integrity, of knowing that there are people who depend on you. And without realising it, when I was 17, I began to develop a vocation of service,” Pena said.
Pena is a defender of what he describes as traditional family values and is opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
For him, a family is comprised of “mother, father and children”.
His son is now 26, and the couple also has a 17-year-old daughter.
After becoming a father as a teenager, Pena was encouraged to get an education by family. He studied economics at university in Paraguay before heading to Columbia University in New York for his postgraduate education.
He then worked as an economist at the central bank in Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion, before joining the IMF in Washington, DC. He later returned to Paraguay as a member of the central bank board.
Those who know Pena described him to the Reuters news agency as “clean-cut”, “decent” and having “good ideas”. Critics said he is a member of the out-of-touch elite who lacks political experience and is acting as a puppet of Colorado Party leader and former President Horacio Cartes, Pena’s main backer.
“He is not a politician who wants a revolution – he wants evolution,” said a businessman with investments in Paraguay who knows Pena personally and asked not to be named.
Supporters said Pena will be able to keep a cool head during any tumult.
“I think what characterises him is that he has infinite tranquility,” said Lea Gimenez, who served as Pena’s deputy when he was finance minister and was later finance minister herself.
“Even during this election campaign, which has been so long because we have been in the process for almost a year and a half, I have not seen him once lose his temper,” she said.
“He is very serene. His peace of mind is impressive,” a collaborator told the AFP news agency.
Pena made a first attempt at the presidency in 2017 when he lost the party primary to the man he will now replace after a constitutionally limited single term, Mario Abdo Benitez.
He entered politics as finance minister during the presidency of Cartes, who is under United States sanctions for alleged corruption.
Pena’s detractors describe him as Cartes’s secretary.
Alegre went even further, describing Pena as the “servant” of Cartes and the party as a corrupt institution.
But Pena was nonchalant about the criticism and has pledged business-friendly policies that focus on job creation, keeping taxes low and attracting foreign investment.
“He matured very quickly, being a young father. … He became an adult very quickly,” a former colleague told Reuters. “‘Santi’ has a lot of life experience and is a natural negotiator.”
In a statement on Monday, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller congratulated Pena and said the United States looked forward to collaborating with Paraguay on shared goals such as “fighting corruption and impunity and advancing security and economic growth”.
Taiwan and Israel
Pena said he will preserve diplomatic relations with Taiwan despite demands from the agricultural and livestock industries to open up an export market to China.
Paraguay is one of only 13 countries to recognise Taiwan.
The embassy of the self-governing island congratulated the conservative party for its success in the elections, stating that it would continue to advance the “fruitful relationship of prosperity partners” in a brief post on Facebook.
Also on the diplomatic front, Pena told AFP that he would move Paraguay’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Paraguay had moved its embassy there in 2018 under Cartes but reversed its decision within months, provoking anger from Israel, which closed its own mission in Asuncion in retaliation.
“Yes, I would go back to Jerusalem,” Pena told AFP before Sunday’s vote.