The US and Guatemala at the crossroads

Strange signals are emanating from Guatemala these days. Elections to a Constituent Assembly have been held in which relatively moderate center-right parties were victorious. A presidential balloting is scheduled for next year. The Guatemalan foreign minister has been issuing statements in support of Contadora efforts to attain political solutions to Central American conflicts.

In fact, the military government has steadfastly resisted United States attempts to get it to participate in a revived Central American Defense Council and extensive military exercises in Honduras and has maintained a ''correct and respectful relationship'' with Sandinista Nicaragua. There have even been suggestions that foreign military advisers should be withdrawn from Central America and an acknowledgment that the Guatemalan Army, as well as the leftist guerrillas who are fighting it, has committed ''excesses.''

These are extraordinary signs from a regime that has long been considered an international pariah. Over the last 30 years, as many as 100,000 Guatemalans may have succumbed in the state terrorism that followed the CIA's overthrow (in 1954 ) of the democratic leftist reform government of Jacobo Arbenz. Even today, the violence continues unabated. In May, 13 university students were killed or kidnapped. Between October 1973 and last April, 57 political leaders and activists were ''eliminated.'' Some sources put killings from the security police as high as 16 a day.

What is one to make of these contradictions? In the view of the Reagan administration, things are clearly getting better. It's said that political parties and trade unions are functioning. The military is in the process of turning power over to civilians. Thus we should encourage this process by renewing military aid and sharply stepping up economic assistance. After all, Guatemalan troops trained by the US will assimilate North American values. Then we can have a counterinsurgency program that respects human rights and is more efficient to boot.

Some have already bought this line. Indeed, in May Congress gave preliminary approval to a military and economic aid package totaling almost $230 million. More recently, the US delegation to the Guatemalan elections came away much impressed. The congressional members all want to restore military aid.

All this certainly sounds good. Unfortunately, recent Guatemalan history suggests the advisability of a more cautious approach. One recalls, for instance , the embrace of Arbenz's successor, President Castillo Armas, by Richard Nixon, then vice-president. Armas, he proclaimed, was going to do ''more for the people in two years than the communists were able to do in 10 years.''

Today, these words are a mocking reminder of the role the US played in establishing and nurturing the Guatemalan terrorist state. It would be the height of cynicism or self-deception to repeat the errors of the past. Already, Guatemalan strong man Mejia Victores has announced that any attempt to replace him with a provisional president would lead to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. If the Assembly members try to do more than draw up a constitution, ''they will be put in line.''

It is difficult to envision a real transfer of power coming out of these developments. Far more likely is the prospect that a ''civilian'' government will provide the military with a convenient facade behind which it will continue to exercise effective power. US congressmen will find it easier to rationalize massive increases in economic and military aid. The bloodletting may well continue.

We should not be accomplices in such a strategy. Military aid should not be restored until the Guatemalan military demonstrates its respect for that most basic of all human rights, the right to live. At the same time, however, we should recognize that the developments noted at the beginning of this article represent movement in the right direction. They should be encouraged, to the best of our limited ability to do so. What this means in practical terms is a modest increase in economic aid (considerably less than is being proposed by the Reagan administration). Care should be taken to avoid those kinds of assistance that have military implications. (The provision of civilian helicopters that can be readily converted to military use, for instance.) Care need also be taken not to create the kind of patron-client relationship that might undermine the Guatemalan regime's current refusal to join the Reagan administration's crusade against Nicaragua.

In short, the time is ripe for the US to become reinvolved in Guatemala. But in a constructive, rather than destructive, fashion. That reentry should be cautious and conditional. Headlong plunges are not the order of the day.

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