Guatemala inches forward. Shadows of history dim hopes for quick change
Only five years ago, Guatemala's leaders reportedly would gather for breakfast to decide which of their opponents would be killed that week. Today, Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo is inching his country toward a working democracy -- though not as quickly as his critics would like.Skip to next paragraph
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``In Central America, even the smallest step is a revolutionary step,'' Mr. Cerezo argues.
Just five months into his presidency, he insists that only by moving with extreme caution can he hope to shift Guatemala away from a 30-year heritage of military rule and human rights abuse toward a democratic path.
But critics in the opposition demand action.
``The people expected a lot and he has given them nothing,'' says former presidential candidate, moderate conservative, Jorge Serrano. ``Matters could get out of control.''
If progress doesn't come quickly, Cerezo will face the consequences of growing popular impatience.
Cerezo refuses to investigate military officers accused of past human rights abuses. He has rejected the idea of a land reform. He has adopted a conservative economic stabilization program. These actions sit oddly on the shoulders of a reformist leader. But the shadows of Guatemala's violent history dim any hopes for quick change.
``Vinicio holds perhaps 30 percent of the power at the moment,'' estimates the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Guatemala, Msgr. Juan Gerardi. ``The private business sector and the Army still have the rest.''
So far, the new civilian Christian Democratic President has done nothing to challenge the military, beyond occupying the presidential office to which generals had become accustomed. Indeed, last month he went so far as to inaugurate one of the Army's controversial model villages for civilians who have been driven from their homes by the Army's counterinsurgency campaign. Although the civilian government has put the conflict zones under nominal civilian control, the military maintains a determining influence.
``Cerezo has had less trouble with the military than he should have had,'' comments one Western diplomat caustically. ``He's done everything but put on a uniform, and he has less control over the Army than he might have had because of the way he is dealing with them.''
But Mario Solorzano, a left-wing opposition leader from the Social Democratic Party, is less inclined to fault the President on this score. ``The Army is a real power in Guatemala,'' he says. ``Why pretend it isn't? And we political parties have to deal with it like we deal with any real power.''
The most notable point on which Cerezo has avoided friction with the Army is over human rights violations. Human rights observers estimate that between 1966 and 1985, 38,000 people disappeared and 100,000 died. The human rights group Amnesty International says it has information on 5,000 political killings between 1978 and 1980 alone.
Despite the widespread belief that the military was directly responsible for the bulk of those killings, Cerezo has steadfastly opposed demands that the government should bring those responsible to justice, `a la Argentina. Nineth Garc'ia, head of the Mutual Support Group of relatives of disappeared people, stormed out of a meeting with Cerezo in early June accusing him of ``being in bed with the Army.'' Cerezo had postponed the formation of a commission to investigate the fate of the disappeared in Guatemala.
This decision, argues one Western observer monitoring human rights developments here, illustrates that ``there has been no policy change with regard to human rights'' since the civilian government took office.