ASUNCION, PARAGUAY — JUAN CARLOS WASMOSY is the first civilian president chosen in free and direct elections since Paraguay's independence from Spain in 1811.
His election has allowed Paraguay to discard its isolationist policies and cease being ``an island surrounded by land,'' as many locals describe their landlocked country.
Paraguay's first ruler, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, prohibited anyone from entering or leaving Paraguay and banned foreign trade, newspapers, and mail.
Francisco Solano Lopez later led the nation into the War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, in which 60 percent of the nation's 550,000 people were killed, and virtually all of its able-bodied male population was wiped out.
For the next 85 years, 44 rulers came and went, five of which held office for less than a month and 11 others for less than a year.
In 1954, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda assumed power and governed for the next 34 years through a mix of repression and corruption. Primarily, he used the Colorado Party to solidify his power base by doling out thousands of government jobs to its members and controlling the military by incorporating it into the party.
The Colorado Party has had a 48-year hold on power, the longest unbroken tenure in Latin America after the Institutional Revolutionary Party's hold on Mexico.
In 1989, Gen. Andres Rodriquez, whose daughter was married to Stroessner's eldest son, toppled the dictator in a bloody coup that sent him into exile in Brazil.
But since the coup, Paraguayans have enjoyed un-precedented political freedoms. Many observers here expect voters to choose an opposition candidate in the 1998 presidential election.
``Stroessner's system is still in place, and the country knows it needs a change,'' says Jose Luis Simon, director of the Paraguayan Center for Sociological Studies. ``Democracy cannot exist with this kind of structure.''