ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay -- Horacio Cartes, the tobacco magnate and front-runner for months in Paraguay's presidential election on Sunday, has set off a fierce controversy here after publicly comparing gay people to "monkeys" and likening the support of same-sex marriage to believing in "the end of the world."
In a radio interview this month, Mr. Cartes, 57, theatrically threatened to inflict harm on his own private parts if his 28-year-old son were to seek to marry another man.
"I would shoot myself in the testicles, because I do not agree," he said, using slightly more colorful language to describe how he would react to such a possibility.
The comments by Mr. Cartes, who is also battling accusations of laundering money and profiting from the smuggling of contraband Paraguayan-made cigarettes into neighboring Brazil, have introduced an unexpected element into a presidential race he had long been leading. But one recent poll suggested the momentum in the race was shifting.
The contest pits Mr. Cartes, of the powerful Colorado Party, against Efraín Alegre, of the Liberal Party. While the two share ideological similarities, with relatively conservative and business-friendly proposals, Mr. Alegre, a senator, has adopted a more nuanced stance on gay rights. The issue gained prominence here after legislators in Uruguay voted this month to legalize same-sex marriage, making Uruguay the second country in South America to do so after Argentina.
While Mr. Alegre, 48, has said he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, he said Tuesday in an interview that he was open to more debate on the issue. "This is something that needs to be discussed in society," he said. Mr. Cartes's statements on same-sex marriage and other issues, he said, represent "the Paraguay of the past."
The election on Sunday comes as the governing institutions in Paraguay, among South America's poorest nations, seek to regain legitimacy. The Senate here drew criticism around the region last year after hastily ousting the president, Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who had ended six decades of dominance by the Colorado Party.
Somos Gay, a Paraguayan gay rights group, issued a statement this month calling Mr. Cartes's comments on same-sex marriage "cruel" and pressing him to apologize publicly. "The Colorado Party claims to protect the Paraguayan family, claiming that if lesbians and gays become visible in our society, the traditional family will disappear," said Sergio López, a director of the group. "But in fact, they are ignoring reality since that traditional family is no longer the norm."
Mr. Cartes has not issued an apology, and a spokesman for his campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Mr. Cartes is no stranger to controversy. His campaign has faced scrutiny over a State Department diplomatic cable, obtained by WikiLeaks, in which he was described as the focus of a money-laundering inquiry related to an institution under his control, Banco Amambay. He has rejected the accusations of laundering money as "laughable."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.