San Salvador — It has all the earmarks of the classic Latin American coup, but the military changeover in Guatemala last week could prove a progressive step for the Central American nation.
Although many details of the coup remain vague and there are some uncertainties over the way the new leadership has emerged, a number of political leaders in Guatemala are encouraged by the change.
They like Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who emerges as Guatemala's new strong man.
A retired general who was a candidate of the Christian Democratic Party and other groups in the 1972 presidential election, he is well regarded in the military and has numerous contacts with civilian politicians.
He resembles the Mexican comedian Cantinflas, but his actions since coming to office are anything but comic. And he is seen as offering a new opportunity for Guatemala to emerge from its current political turmoil and the government's battle with leftist guerrillas.
General Rios Montt is promising what he calls ''an empire of law'' and ''honesty beyond anything Guatemala has ever seen before.''
These are, of course, just words -- and some observers are concerned that the general may have more dictatorial than democratic aims. But his colleagues and others close to him say there is substance to his words.
Washington appears to be breathing easier about the coup, although it is holding off any public expressions of enthusiasm for the changeover that propelled the much-discredited government of Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia out of office March 23.
There is some hope in US circles that the new leaders will find some way to curb, and eventually to end, the leftist guerrilla insurgency stalking the country. Washington had doubts that either the Lucas Garcia government or the one that was to have been formed by Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara Rodriguez, elected president March 7, could have coped with the insurgency.
Washington is more likely to consider resuming at least limited military aid to Guatemala now that General Rios Montt is in the saddle -- and appears to be more happy about doing it than aiding a government headed by General Guevara, who had been closely linked to the Lucas Garcia government.
Military aid was suspended three years ago because of the poor human-rights record of the Lucas Garcia government. But the Reagan administration has been increasingly concerned about the strength of the guerrillas and is said to believe that new US aid is needed by the Guatemalan military to deal with the problem.
Washington is encouraged by the fact that General Rios Montt and the two other members of the new military junta were trained at US military schools in Panama and in the US. The other junta members are Gen. Horacio Maldonado Schaad and Col. Luis Gordillo Martinez.
General Rios Montt, known as a political moderate who leans away from the extreme rightism prevalent among many Guatemalan military men, says the new government is one ''without political tendencies.''
He adds: ''We are striving for an honest government, a democratic one that serves the people of this nation . . . by getting the military out of politics.''
Without specifically criticizing the Lucas Garcia government, everything that General Rios Montt is saying implicitly suggests that he and his colleagues were persuaded to shunt the March 7 election results and take over because they believed the charges of repression, human-rights abuses, and corruption laid on the Lucas Garcia's government were true.
There is criticism of the new leadership by some leaders in the Army and politicians who originally thought they, too, were part of the coup and who now find themselves on the outside.
At first the new military junta was described as a five-member body, but eventally it was reduced to three.
General Rios Montt is no newcomer to politics although his career has been largely in the military, where he became director of Guatemala 's military academy. He got into politics in the 1974 presidential election as the candidate of the moderate Christian Democratic Party. He lost by a large margin to the government's candidate. But most observers believe the election was rigged and that General Rios Montt may well have won.