Clyde Taylor knew it would be more than just another diplomatic reception when a policeman poked him in the chest and demanded to see identification.
Taylor was admitted to what was billed as a dinner party for 300 sponsored by a group called "Women for Democracy" at an uptown private home. Most of the other silk-stocking guests were turned away.
Accustomed to command, they jostled in fury behind a police cordon. For want of better inspiration, they sang a protest "Happy Birthday." The police responded by firing tear gas at them.
A little while later, officers commanded by a police general peered over a brick wall encircling the house, located Taylor and tossed a tear-gas grenade, thereby, doubtless, winning an asterisk entry in the annals of the U.S. Foreign Service.
"It must have been the first time in history in a pro-Western country where the police were ordered to tear-gas an American ambassador," Taylor mused one recent morning behind the stout and comforting redoubts of his embassy here. "It's an old tactic. They're trying to make me so uncomfortable that I'll leave. I'm not going anywhere."
For a country locked into yesterday, the campaign against an American ambassador by a right-wing military regime is more than spectacle. Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, one of the world's longest-lived dictators, is running for president again.
Taylor is handy and easily assaulted as the government-proclaimed leader of the opposition in a country where real opposition has been suppressed since the day in 1954 when Stroessner seized power.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House then, and Paraguayan officials remember nostalgically how American ambassadors once measured their friendship in degrees of anti-communism.
The official Paraguayan world view has not changed one whit since. Either you support President Stroessner or you are an enemy. If you are an enemy, you are a Communist. It is a truism that latter-day American envoys, preoccupied with a tainted, even subversive, notion of human rights, have not tended to understand, in the view of Paraguayan officials.
"The government accuses me of being manipulated by the opposition," Taylor said. "In fact, my encounters with opposition leaders represent a minority of my meetings with Paraguayans. I do not think they are out of balance. It's a a small country. Sometimes my meetings with government officials anger the opposition."
In time-warp Paraguay, which has lived under a state of siege almost continually since 1929, a schedule of coming events has been engraved by the armed forces and the century-old Colorado Party, twin guarantors of Stroessner's rule. It is designed to be as immutable as the muddy Paraguay River which flows past the gray presidential palace.
To signal the start of his campaign, Stroessner is likely to lift the formal state of siege, less as an accommodation than as a gesture of strength and a sop to critical democratic neighbors like Argentina. Then the reelection drums will beat in earnest.
In September, the Colorados in convention will acclaim Stroessner their presidential candidate. In February, 1988, he will win election to an eighth five-year term with something over 90% of the vote. Quiet flows the official Paraguay.
There are some uncertainties.
One is Stroessner's age. He is 74, but vigorous and alert, according to a visiting South American official and a Paraguayan businessman who met independently with him earlier this month. Still, he has reduced ceremonial appearances, and has thrice postponed scheduled surgery on a troublesome gall bladder, according to well-placed Paraguayan sources.
More tangible is growing dissatisfaction with his rule. In addition to students and a gaggle of small, splintered opposition parties, Stroessner's opponents now also include professionals and a large part of the private sector as well as the hierarchy of a strong and outspoken Roman Catholic church.
There were street demonstrations against Stroessner last year for the first time in three decades, and more seem to be in prospect with the reopening of schools and the onset of cooler weather, marking the Southern Hemisphere autumn.
Tellingly, there are even those within the Colorado Party daring to suggest in public that, his place in history secure, Stroessner should step down in favor a civilian Colorado successor.
Although his opponents question its pace and cost, there are few who challenge Stroessner's contribution to the construction of a 20th-Century Paraguay. He brought unprecedented stability to a country weaned on chaos. There has been remarkable development, either because of the government or, as his foes insist, in spite of it.
From 1974 through 1981, when Brazilian billions flowed in for binational construction of Itaipu, the world's largest hydroelectric project, Paraguay's economic growth was consistently the best in Latin America.
Homey Asuncion gets its electricity from Itaipu now, but the boom is over. Hurt by a cruel drought that ravaged export crops of soybeans and cotton, the economy shrank an alarming 5% last year.
A foreign debt of $1.9 billion, one-quarter of it to neighboring Brazil, is proving unpayable. Inflation and unemployment are up, and living standards are falling amid the erosion of real income.
American interests are minimal. Only 3.3% of the foreign debt is owed to U.S. institutions, public and private, and there are no major American commercial or strategic interests here.
Business leaders charge that the inner circle of Paraguayan government decision-makers, Stroessner's trusted fellow veterans of a war with Bolivia half a century ago, demonstrate neither the ability nor the inclination to fashion effective economic remedies.
Colorado faithful on the public payroll fuel a painful budget deficit. Smuggling is estimated to account for 60% of all foreign commerce. New investment lags amid institutionalized corruption so pervasive that it is reckoned as a routine cost of doing business. One would-be investor, a Mexican, went home in disgust at the payoffs he was asked to make.
Taylor is a key figure in the flux because the United States has been so long cited as a fellow fierce warrior against the Communist threat, and because he says things publicly that would get Paraguayans in trouble if they said them.
"We believe that if the government doesn't act to foster the development of democratic change, it could lead to polarization of the society," Taylor said in the interview. "We are not talking with any group about how they should proceed. Instead, we are taking the high road, talking about freedoms, a political opening, a transition toward democracy."
Beginning at the center and moving left, a fair number of Paraguayan political activists believe that Taylor's rationale is disingenuous. They see the current American preoccupation with dictatorships of right as well as left as a tactic to counterbalance criticisms of American policies in Central America.
Still, having an American ambassador in town willing not only to speak out but also to meet with Paraguayans denounced as subversives by their government has done wonders for the morale of an opposition with no firepower of its own.
Mysterious Pirate Signal
Three years ago, the government silenced ABC Color, Paraguay's only independent newspaper. Earlier this year, it watched in satisfaction as independent Radio Nanduti was forced to close after being jammed by a mysterious pirate signal.
An American Embassy statement expressed "deep regret" at the closure.
"The United States government urges Paraguay to take the necessary measures that will allow for the full restoration of normal journalistic operation by Radio Nanduti, as well as by the newspaper ABC Color, as a demonstration of its avowed democratic commitment and dedication to the liberty of its people," the statement said.
Interpreted by the government as a formal note of protest, the statement triggered an official firestorm against Taylor, punctuated by the tear gassing and subsequent official ostracism.
"We didn't accuse the government of jamming the station," Taylor said. "We only asked why they couldn't protect it in a public statement consistent with our concern for human rights and a free press."
Such niceties were lost on the enraged Paraguayan government. The minister of the interior suggested that Taylor might be declared persona non grata. Colorado Party units fired off angry missives, and the editor of one newspaper, a former Stroessner son-in-law, opined in print that it might not be a bad idea to burn the U.S. Embassy.
Since then, the Paraguayan government has found it as impossible to help recover a wandering National Aeronautics and Space Administration weather balloon as it did to trace the pirate radio interference, and nobody in the Paraguayan tennis world could make it to an embassy reception in honor of the visiting American Davis Cup team--a snub that was followed with delight when the Paraguayan team upset the Americans.
A departing U.S. Army colonel, by contrast, found 22 generals at his farewell lunch and had 45 minutes with Stroessner himself while the official press lamented how sad it was to see the departure of Americans who like Paraguay.
The spat with Taylor enlivens the official press but also underlines the message that the ambassador and many Paraguayans seek to deliver to Stroessner, his army and party: At present, the opposition is not Marxist, or extremist, or violent, but as frustration grows within a closed political system, so does the danger that it could become so.
Latin America's longest-lasting caudillo is not listening.