ASUNCION, Paraguay — Opposition politician Miguel Abdon Saguier was jailed for 24 hours last month after leading a protest march. He was not charged with any offense, and when he went home, a watcher went with him.
The watcher, an earnest young man in a blue uniform, stood in the rain across the street from Saguier's suburban home and took down in his notebook the license numbers of arriving cars.
To Paraguayans, the watcher is a neighborhood fixture as unremarkable as a lamppost. Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, a tough former artillery officer who is one of the world's most durable dictators, has watched his enemies with unflagging resolve for 32 years.
Intimidation is a trademark of Stroessner's rule, but it is wearing thin in a country now openly seeking political change. Despite the watcher outside, a procession of well-wishers knocked at Saguier's door that gray afternoon.
Street protests against Stroessner, highly unusual when they began last March, have become commonplace. Students, workers, opposition parties, businessmen, churchmen and dissidents within the ruling party have begun to demand a democratic opening. Suddenly, in his seventh term as president, Stroessner is a dictator on the defensive.
He is not alone. In Chile, stiff-necked Gen. Augusto Pinochet is also confronted by broad-based civilian opponents seeking a transition to democracy.
Stroessner, 73, and Pinochet, 70, cherish power and have resolved to keep it. Indeed, it is their longevity, their personal style of governing and their unbending resistance to change that make Stroessner and Pinochet such anomalies in Latin America today.
They are joined, at the other end of the political spectrum, by Fidel Castro, who has been Cuba's one-man band since 1959. Castro will be 59 in August, and the pressures that jostle his aging revolution are more subtle than the street demonstrations challenging Stroessner and Pinochet. After nearly three decades of grueling sacrifice, Castro's Marxist economic model demands still more sacrifice.
Stroessner and Pinochet, anti-communist zealots, and Castro, as fanatic as ever in his anti-imperialism, are the sole survivors among Latin America's long-lived dictators, a breed that once flourished.
Significantly, because of a major shift in U.S. policy, in both Paraguay and Chile the dictators' democratic opponents count the Reagan Administration as a key supporter in the quest for change. Hard-line anti-communism no longer offers a shield from American disquiet with dictatorship.
"We see the United States as an ally in the search for democratic government," Gabriel Valdez, president of Chile's largest opposition party, said not long ago. "It can no longer be said that the U.S. is supporting authoritarian governments. There has been a very positive change."
Aldo Zucolillo, owner of the newspaper ABC Color, which Stroessner shut down for good in 1984, said, "The presence of a concerned American Embassy is absolutely fundamental to the democratic opposition here."
As object lessons in control and survival, the old-time dictators are joined by a remarkable Mexican political party that is among the longest-ruling in the world. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI as it is known by its Spanish initials, is a democratic giant to its majority supporters, a mask for dictatorship to its growing number of opponents.
Unaccustomed pressure is being brought to bear on the PRI, as it is on the dictators. Most of the pressure comes from within, the result of economic decline. But some comes from Washington, where U.S. officials have been publicly critical of the PRI's grip on power.
In their concentration of power, the three one-man rulers and the monolithic PRI have withstood a historic turning of the Latin American political clock toward democracy. All are textbook examples of an authoritarianism that was once the Latin American rule and is now the exception.
A decade ago, there were only five democratically elected governments in Latin America. Now there are 14, and almost 90% of the hemisphere's 400 million people live under some form of democratic system.
Today, the opponents of the remaining dictators win headlines; sometimes they win skirmishes. But thus far Stroessner, Pinochet, Castro and the PRI have won all the wars.
Of the dictators, Castro is not seriously threatened. But from the outside looking in, persistent unrest in Chile and Paraguay evokes the tumult that so quickly toppled the entrenched Duvalier family dynasty in Haiti earlier this year. Robert E. White, a former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, told an American television interviewer recently that the fall of Stroessner "is a question of months."