Asunci'on, Paraguay — As one of the longest-ruling world leaders, Paraguayan strong man Alfredo Stroessner has beaten off all civilian and military challengers. But Paraguayans were reminded recently that the 76-year-old general, who has ruled since 1954, cannot best the one sure nemesis of all dictators: his own mortality.
And that fact has created a great deal of uncertainty and worry in a country where 75 percent of its citizens have known only his rule.
In September, because of apparent complications from surgery, General Stroessner disappeared from public view for about three weeks. As a result, for the first time, he was unable to attend ceremonies marking several important historical anniversaries. He also canceled a long-planned trip to Taiwan.
These events unleashed discussion of a long-taboo subject here: post-Stroessner Paraguay.
``Stroessner had always appeared as strong as a bull,'' said Mart'in Chiola, a top official in the ruling Colorado Party. ``But people are thinking more of the future. There's much uncertainty and anxiety.''
Although Stroessner has governed through fear and intimidation, most Paraguayans don't seem to be longing for his departure. Independent polls indicate he enjoys the support of about 50 percent of the population, thanks to rapid economic growth during his reign.
Many Paraguayans worry Stroessner's demise will spark the type of political instability that crippled the nation before he took power. From 1935-54, Paraguay had 11 leaders.
As a way of subtly planting doubts about democracy, the government-controlled media prints dispatches highlighting the economic and political disorder in Argentina, Peru, and Brazil following their return to civilian rule.
``Paraguayans aren't looking forward to Stroessner's death,'' said Tom Whigham, a history professor at the University of Georgia. ``Nobody knows what will happen.''
While the future is cloudy, few people are willing to bet that the military and the ruling Colorado Party won't continue to hold power.
Mr. Chiola said if Stroessner dies soon, the civilian and armed forces leadership would adhere to the Constitution, under which Congress would name an interim president until new elections were held.
Opposition politicians are convinced that the military and Colorado Party bosses would not permit them to win the presidency. ``The military would take power, although maybe they would do it with a figurehead president,'' said Carlos Romero Pereira, who heads a dissident wing of the Colorado Party.
The failure of the six opposition political parties to unify behind a proposal that would pave the way to democracy strengthens the regime. Not only are the opposition parties divided among themselves but each is rent by internal squabbles.
``If Stroessner died tomorrow, and free, democratic elections were to be held in three months, the opposition wouldn't know what to do, they wouldn't know where to begin,'' a foreign diplomat said.
Still, several developments in the past year have given hope to the opposition.
Before a small upswing in 1988, per capita income had declined annually since '82 with the stagnation of the economy. The economic problems have fomented discontent not only among urban and rural workers but also among businessmen.
Stroessner faces increased dissent within the ruling party, which suffered a traumatic split last year.
Independent unions and peasant groups, though still weak, are growing stronger and could soon begin to challenge the government's anti-labor policies.
The Roman Catholic Church has stepped up criticism of the regime.
``Stroessner is the glue that holds this system together,'' the foreign diplomat said. ``Support for democracy is growing, and at some point whoever is in power will have to respond to that.''