With less than two months left on the clock of his five-year term, outgoing Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes put his final stamp on international affairs this May: a surprise announcement that Paraguay would move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Cartes’s decision made Paraguay the second nation (after Guatemala) to mimic President Donald Trump’s order relocating the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The unexpected move sent minor shockwaves through the international community. The status of Jerusalem is a major point of contention in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Designated by the United Nations as an international zone, Israel seized control of the city’s western half in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and then united the entire city under Israeli rule in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel insists the Holy City, which contains enormous historical significance for both Muslims and Jews (and Christians), is the once and future capital of Israel. Much of the international community disagrees, viewing Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem as illegal, and therefore maintain their diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv.
Cartes’s controversial move was short lived. In August, the new Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez Jr. took office. Less than a month into his presidency, it was Abdo’s turn to put his mark on global affairs: Paraguay’s Israeli Embassy would return to its previous home of Tel Aviv, a mere four months after it was inaugurated to much fanfare by ex-President Cartes and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. Many international observers were left scratching their heads, but Abdo’s decision can be explained by a number of key factors.
First and foremost, there is no love lost between Presidents Cartes and Marito, who first entered the political spotlight in 2017 through his high profile rejection of a controversial constitutional amendment backed by Cartes. Furthermore, while they both hail from the conservative Colorado party, Abdo received a tough challenge in the internal party primaries from a Cartes-backed opponent. Crucially, numerous reports indicate that the lame duck Cartes administration issued this controversial order without consulting with Abdo’s transition team, leaving the new administration blindsided.
There are additional explanations beyond petty domestic politics. Perhaps Abdo sought to score an early foreign affairs victory, because later in his term they will be harder to come by. Many observers believe the upcoming 2023 renegotiation of the Itaipu hydroelectric dam treaty with neighbor Brazil to be the most urgent policy issue facing the new government. Still in the first year of his presidency, it is too early to evaluate Abdo’s foreign policy. Yet early signs so far send a clear message: Paraguay is stepping out internationally.
Nonetheless, it may be premature to chalk the decision up to Paraguayan sympathy for Palestinian liberation. Widespread reports of extensive behind the scenes maneuvering reveal the generous terms Abdo’s team extracted from Arab governments. Following Paraguay’s reversal, in a head-spinning two days both the Palestinian Authority and Turkey announced they would open embassies in Paraguay, while Israel itself announced the closure of its Embassy in Paraguay and retracted its Ambassador.
The full scope of the agreements between Paraguay, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey remain unknown. Regardless, these deals indicate that the new administration’s door is open to new foreign partners, and may be willing to drop a few former friends along the way- and not just in the Middle East. Farther east, Paraguay remains one of just eighteen countries worldwide to recognize Taiwan. The new Paraguayan president, however, has already signaled his eagerness to sign a trade deal with the People’s Republic of China. Paraguay swapped its friendship with Israel for warmer relations with the Arab world at large, a much larger potential market for Paraguayan goods. Is a repeat of this year’s ordeal really that far off, whereby Paraguay shows Taiwan the door in order to cozy up to the world’s biggest economy?
Paraguay is a small country, but it radiates stability and consistency. Foreign governments looking for new regional partners may increasingly look beyond the economic tumult of Argentina and the political tumult of Brazil. In its first month, the young Abdo administration already demonstrated its willingness to break from political precedent and court new international allies. In the coming months we will see what additional friendships will be forged (or spurned) by the new government.