PARAGUAY'S Alfredo Stroessner may have been the last of the old-time Latin American dictators, self-aggrandizing autocrats who held their countries in feudal bondage. He enjoyed 35 years of virtually unchallenged authority. But it's a little too early to write his political obituary. The man who deposed him, Gen. Andr'es Rodr'iguez, was the dictator's right-hand man - and therefore, one assumes, a top student in the Stroessner school of government. Despite avowals of fealty to democracy, it's doubtful General Rodr'iguez fully understands the meaning of the word.
The general's promises have, however, given some hope to Paraguayans, including opposition leaders and Catholic Church officials who criticized Stroessner's policies. And Rodr'iguez has allowed banned publications and broadcast stations to reopen. But his political motives remain suspect.
Rodriguez's plan to rush an election through in the next 90 days could result in an easy victory for his, and Stroessner's, well-entrenched Colorado Party. The opposition, long repressed, would ideally have more than a couple of months to organize itself and register voters.
But there's still hope, particularly if the United States and others in the hemisphere speak out strongly for democratic change, including protection of human rights and a clear separation between military and civil authority. Such pressures played a role in moving Chile toward its recent plebiscite and possible end to dictatorship. International observers should be on hand to monitor Paraguay's coming elections.
The trend of recent years has been overwhelmingly against dictatorship in Latin America. Though it won't be easy to dislodge the Stroessner legacy in Paraguay, pressures for change both within the country and from outside may be able to get the job done.