Paraguay’s President-elect Santiago Pena, a clean-cut former central bank director, will need all his wits and cool to steer the South American nation through economic headwinds hurting voters and rising pressure from farmers to cut ties with Taiwan.
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.
Pena, 44, fended off center-left opposition challenger Efrain Alegre with around 43% of the vote to some 27.5%, according to preliminary results from the nation’s electoral court. He claimed victory and Alegre acknowledged the result.
“We have a lot to do, after the last years of economic stagnation, of fiscal deficit, the task that awaits us is not for a single person or for a party,” Pena said in his victory speech, calling for “unity and consensus”.
“The time has come to postpone our differences to prioritize the common causes that unite us as a nation.”
Pena, who takes office on Aug. 15, will face pressures to shrink a ballooning fiscal deficit, appease farmers calling for the country to ditch Taiwan and open relations with China, and navigate corruption allegations from the U.S. Treasury that have rattled the powerful party leader and close ally Horacio Cartes.
Still, Pena will be able to keep a cool head amid the tumult, his supporters say.
“I think what characterizes 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.”
“Santi,” as he is often known, has pledged business-friendly policies that focus on job creation, keeping taxes low and attracting foreign investment.
Throughout the campaign the Colorado Party candidate has vowed to extend Paraguay’s decades-long diplomatic relations with Taiwan, despite pressures to open up to China and its huge consumer demand for soybeans and beef. Paraguay is one of only 13 countries globally to recognize Taiwan.
Those who know Pena described him to Reuters as “clean cut,” “decent” and with “good ideas.” Critics say he is a member of the out-of-touch elite who lacks political experience and is acting as a puppet of party leader and main backer Cartes.
“He is not a politician who wants a revolution, he wants evolution,” said a businessman with investments in Paraguay who knows Pena personally, asking not to be named.
Pena’s political career took off when protests in 2016 forced then-President Cartes to abandon plans to seek an extra term by amending the constitution and to hand-pick Pena as his intended successor.
Members of the Colorado Party, however, were unconvinced that Pena’s slick city appearance and time in Washington would go down well with voters and he lost out to current president Mario Abdo Benitez in the 2018 primary election contest.
This time around Pena is the party’s man. He is backed once more by Cartes, who some see as the power behind the throne, but who is facing U.S. sanctions over corruption allegations that have hurt his reputation.
Pena married his childhood sweetheart and became a father for the first time at 17. He studied economics in Paraguay and later attended New York’s Columbia University.
He worked as an economist at the central bank in Asuncion and then with the IMF in Washington, before returning to Paraguay on the central bank board. He became finance minister in 2015.
“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.”