Gen. Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda is facing the most serious challenge to his strong-arm rule since he seized power in this landlocked Latin American country 32 years ago. A wave of antigovernment demonstrations since the beginning of the year have been violently suppressed by police and paramilitary groups supporting the government.
General Stroessner, who has long emphasized the ``peace and prosperity'' brought under his rule, claimed that ``subversive agitators'' are behind the recent unrest.
Analysts here say the demonstrations are likely to continue in coming months. Groups opposed to Stroessner -- who is often referred to as the ``durable dictator'' -- cite the supportive attitude of the Roman Catholic Church and United States policy, which is critical of Stroessner, as two factors fueling their movement.
Paraguay's Catholic Church leadership recently called for a national dialogue between pro- and antigovernment forces in order to head off possible violence and push for a transition to democratic rule.
Just months ago, the possibility of widespread demonstrations was unthinkable, says one source. ``We must search for a form of transition, of change.''
Paraguay's last civil war ended with the establishment of the Stroessner dictatorship in 1954. The ensuing years have been calm by Latin American standards. But, say analysts, Stroessner himself -- by repressing all dissent and refusing to move toward democratic reform -- may be creating conditions which encourage civil unrest and which could eventually lead to his downfall.
``You will have conditions that will make civil war or insurgency possible,'' says one US Embassy official.
Many reform-minded Paraguayans compare their country to Haiti and the Philippines, where long-ruling dictatorships recently have been forced out of power. They also draw inspiration from the transition to democracy in neighboring countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Bolivia, and say that it is only a matter of time before Stroessner also falls.
What comes after Stroessner -- and whether a change comes in a matter of months or years -- is increasingly a matter of concern and debate inside the country and among opposition forces.
Divisions within the ruling Colorado Party structure have begun to appear, and the opposition forces are now united under the umbrella National Accord Movement.
Aldo Zuccolillo, a leading critic of the regime and director of ABC Color, the leading opposition newspaper that was closed by the government two years ago, says the Colorado Party and the military should replace Stroessner with a civilian leader. Mr. Zuccolillo admits, however, that any government that takes power after Stroessner must govern with a firm hand to avoid chaos and violence.
Analysts say unrest has been exacerbated by vexing economic problems. In the last few years, as the country has experienced rising unemployment and a sharp economic downturn, critics of the regime have become more outspoken. According to economists here, the country faces even more serious difficulties in the months ahead.