Guatemalan high-wire act

YET another Latin American nation is now stepping, albeit gingerly, toward civilian rule. Guatemala's President-elect, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, must perform the same high-wire balancing act that several other Latin American Presidents have embarked on: revitalize the economy, deal with foreign debt, achieve enough social reform to maintain popular backing, and slowly gain control both of the military and the privileged civilian sector -- but without moving so forcefully against either as to risk mili tary overthrow. The task will not be easy. Guatemala's annual inflation rate stands at 50 percent, and nearly half of all Guatemalans are unemployed or severely underemployed. There is a long-simmering leftist insurgency, the military has an appalling record of rights violations, and the people see in Mr. Cerezo their hope for social justice.

Cerezo has two external assets. One is the knowledge that success is possible: Other civilian Latin American Presidents have made significant progress, though none has yet made it all the way across the wire. Jos'e Napole'on Duarte in El Salvador and Ra'ul Alfons'in in Argentina have made major inroads on their countries' difficulties; Jos'e Sarney, in Brazil, is not far behind. Alan Garc'ia P'erez, not yet five months in office in Peru, rivals Mr. Alfons'in for his boldness; he has made major moves aga inst some of his nation's top military leaders and has demanded that the international banking community ease its requirements for debt repayment.

Cerezo's second asset is the United States -- if Uncle Sam plays his cards right. Washington has the money that Guatemala's languishing economy requires. The US should make it indelibly clear to Guatemala's privileged class, and to the military, that funds will be provided only through Cerezo, who formally assumes the presidency Jan. 14. This would give the President-elect an important lever of power: He would be in position to achieve some reforms -- such as in the tax and banking arenas and over the military's rural development programs -- before he sought economic assistance from Washington.

The US cut off military aid to Guatemala during the Carter presidency and would be unlikely to resume it unless the military, and the death squads it controls, ended their human rights violations. Although it is thought unlikely that Cerezo would be strong enough to tackle this issue at once, he must know that those who support him expect such elementary justice.

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