Army shadow dogs Guatemala's civilian leader

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo has a shadow. Wherever he goes, Col. Roberto Matta follows a respectful but watchful one pace behind. Colonel Matta is much more than a glorified bodyguard. In a country where the Army ruled for 30 years before handing the government over to President Cerezo 15 months ago, he is a symbol of the military's continuing strong influence in Guatemalan affairs.

Many Latin American armies have returned to the barracks in recent years, as dictators have given way to elected governments. But few have done so with their heads held as high as the Guatemalan Army. The generals here did not slink out of office, humiliated by military defeat, as did their Argentine counterparts. Nor have they found their hands tied by dependence on United States aid, like their neighbors in El Salvador. When former President Jimmy Carter threatened to cut aid unless human rights were respected in 1977, Guatemala simply refused US aid.

``The military was not forced to hand over power to anybody. They had won the war [against leftist guerrillas] when they decided to support a return to democratic government,'' a foreign observer says. ``If the military hadn't wanted it, there would have been no transition.''

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The transition came very much on the Army's terms, diplomats and politicians here say. Certain areas of policymaking, such as human rights and defense, remain effectively off-limits to the civilian government. The military retains heavy influence in key fields such as foreign relations and rural development policy.

Cerezo's first year in office is littered with illustrations of this fact:

In the human rights field, he has made no effort to overturn one of the former military government's last decrees - an amnesty for all officers who might be accused of human rights abuses.

Having publicly offered, while visiting Spain, to open a dialogue with leftist guerrillas, Cerezo thought better upon returning home. Military pressure behind this about face was clear, Western diplomats here say.

As a crime wave mounted in the capital last year, senior military officials voiced open dissatisfaction with the police chief. Cerezo dismissed him a few weeks later.

How is it that despite the formal trappings of civilian democratic rule, the Army wields such power?

At one very basic level, that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. With 31,700 men, the Army is not enormous by Central American standards, ``but quite simply, it has a monopoly of force, and that alone gives it weight,'' a local political analyst observes.

The Army's control of nearly 1 million men organized in civil defense patrols also gives it eyes and ears in the country, something the Army is unwilling to relinquish. Although Cerezo promised to abolish the obligatory patrols, and later said they would be made voluntary, the patrols stay untouched.

The reason is clear, says a Western diplomat. ``Cerezo recognizes the breaking points'' of his relationship with the military. ``He can't appoint generals, he can't set budgets, he can't do anything with the Army.''

Even in areas of less immediate concern to the military, however, the government is constrained simply by the realities of a country where the Army has been the dominant force for three decades, say local politicians and observers, and foreign diplomats.

The Development Ministry, set up 15 months ago, has taken a long time to get financed and organized, and is only beginning to get down to work, officials say.

This means, says Guatemala's auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Juan Gerardi, ``there is a vacuum. The ministry is trying to fill it, but society was atomized [by the Army's vicious counterinsurgency campaign], social organizations disappeared. Who knows how long it will take to train new people?'' But it is more than a question of people. Some of the Army's more controversial innovations in the countryside, such as the civil defense patrols and strategic hamlets occupied by peasants forcibly evicted from their homes, are not temporary. ``They are structural, and cannot be changed,'' Msgr. Gerardi explains.

After decades in political office, the Army is firmly established within society. ``The Army is part of the community, it is not isolated,'' says one foreign political observer who follows military affairs. ``The military has contacts and relationships all over, at all levels of society, it has ways of making its views felt.''

Those views have greater weight in view of the civilian government's own weaknesses. As government leaders acknowledge, the ruling Christian Democrats have experience only in political opposition, not in running things. And the Christian Democratic party, mauled by past repression, has only shallow roots in the country.

Thus Cerezo is not only beholden to the Army for having given up power, he is reliant on it as he seeks to lay the groundwork for a more democratic society.

``The military is a pressure group with its quota of power like any other,'' Social Democratic Party leader Mario Solorzano says. ``The question is whether you take the initiative, or whether you depend on them. Cerezo's political alliance when he took office was with the Army. That means the military can propose and impose their views, because they are really organized.''

With all sectors in Guatemala - the Army, the church, private business, and labor - apparently convinced that Guatemala's experiment with democracy must continue and succeed, the threat of a coup d''etat is remote.

Nonetheless, the government ``goes more than halfway'' to meet military concerns, says the local political analyst. Because ultimately, ``the Army is still perceived as capable of taking power if it wants to. And that perception gives them power.''

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