INTENSE infighting within Paraguay's ruling Colorado Party is jeopardizing the country's political liberalization. The liberalization was set in motion by the current president, General Andr'es Rodr'iguez, who brought to an end the 35-year-old dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner in a coup last February.
The Colorado Party dispute centers on a fierce battle for power between the ``traditionalists,'' who want to maintain much of the old vision and style of the Stroessner regime, and a minority group known as the ``democrats.''
Largely formed of dissident factions that have rejoined the party since the coup, the democrats favor a faster consolidation of civil rights and more social reforms.
``What is at stake,'' according to Jos'e Carlos Rodr'iguez, a senior researcher at the Center of Documentation and Education, ``is whether we are going to have the same personnel from the dictatorship or democracy.''
The democrats boycotted a special party conference last weekend after two judges had ordered its suspension because of allegations that the traditionalists were allowing only their supporters to attend.
The approximately 900 delegates who turned up voted in a slate of traditionalists to senior party positions.
The democrats have refused to recognize the new leaders, and the split promises to pose the greatest test so far to Gen. Rodr'iguez's 10-month rule.
The Paraguayan military, historically the arbiters of internal Colorado disputes, have so far not openly intervened. But 10 days ago the government was forced to deny persistent coup rumors.
For more than three decades, the Colorados acted as Strossner's propaganda machine and source of electoral support, reaping the benefits of a virtual one-party state.
The party boasts 1 million members out of a population of only 4 million. Analysts here say this may not be too exaggerated a figure since under Stroessner all state employees and military officials had to join.
Rodr'iguez won 70 percent of the vote in the May presidential elections as the Colorado candidate.
Although he has tried to appear neutral in the dispute, political commentators say he favors the democrats.
In recent weeks, he has seen the divisions become so embittered that a group of democrats formed a Permanent Assembly of Victims of Edgar Inssran.
Mr. Inssran is a prominent traditionalist and a current vice president of the Colorado Party. He was Stroessner's interior minister from 1956 to 1969.
He is widely accused of ordering the torture and assassination of the dictator's opponents.
Observers say that if the traditionalists remain on top, they are likely to put limits on the ``democratic spring'' enjoyed by Paraguayans since the coup.
A symbol of the new space available for parties and grass-roots organizations was the presence of Communist Party banners at a recent rally in the capital, Asunci'on. A senior party member spoke for the first time in public in more than 40 years.
``There's been a 180-degree turn in terms of freedom of expression, organization, and the press,'' says Bishop Mario Medina of the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference.
A newly confident peasant and trade union movement has jumped into the political void. Twenty thousand peasant families have organized more than 90 land occupations since the coup, while a new radical workers congress, the CUT, was formed in August with 74 unions represented. And 33 strikes have occurred in Asunci'on in the last seven months. Most analysts say such strikes never would have been permitted under Stroessner's rule.
``The social situation - unemployment, the lack of land, and inflation - have not changed, if anything it is worse,'' says Bishop Medina.
``Why? Because when there is freedom to organize, people demonstrate and you get an idea of the real dimension of their problems,'' says Medina. ``Under Stroessner, it was impossible to gauge.''