Guatemala's Reform Effort is Failing

WITH backing from a core of high-level military commanders, Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo in May managed to survive the second coup attempt in two years. But in the wake of this near-overthrow by disgruntled junior officers it is apparent the hope and substance that Mr. Vinicio Cerezo's presidency once represented is all but gone. Early in his term as the country's first democratically elected civilian president in nearly 20 years, Vinicio Cerezo had appeared to be making progress in curtailing abuses by soldiers battling Guatemala's small leftist guerrilla insurgency. But after last year's coup attempt, notorious paramilitary terror groups such as the ``Secret Anti-Communist Army'' and ``White Hand'' sharply escalated their activities. Rights violations, which surged after the first coup attempt, inflamed again following the more recent putsch; international human rights groups have reported that the number of extrajudicial killings and ``disappearances'' this year is on pace to exceed the total from the three previous years combined.

The prevailing atmosphere of intimidation ensures that, despite the nominal existence of democracy, free political participation and debate cannot occur. This has had a particularly chilling impact on press freedom and on efforts to smooth the deep social and ideological divisions that tear at the country.

In 1988, the offices of what had been the country's only left-leaning newspaper were destroyed by terrorists. A number of journalists were forced to flee the country after repeated bombings, death threats, and public statements by the government that it could not guarantee their safety. This May, members of the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition, a leftist coalition participating in talks aimed at national reconciliation, hastily departed under similar circumstances.

In June, the government seemed to acknowledge its inability to adequately protect the president himself. As rumors of an assassination plot, initiated by a local newspaper columnist, swirled around Guatemala City, Vinicio Cerezo was spirited off to a heavily guarded ranch 25 miles south of the capital. The president's temporary relocation dramatized the degree of insecurity that prevails even at the highest levels of society.

The grave human rights picture is exacerbated by Guatemala's economic woes. A succession of private- and public-sector strikes has combined with inflation, unemployment, and foreign debt to plunge the economy deep into crisis. Work stoppages and demonstrations against the government's economic policies were called last August by a confederation of Guatemala's largest labor unions.

As of late last month, employees from 16 government ministries joined in a teachers' walkout that began in early June. The 40,000 striking teachers, whose salaries average less than $2,500 per year, initially had demanded a $75-per-month pay hike. This demand was later reduced to $45, but the government says it cannot afford pay raises this year. The Vinicio Cerezo administration's insensitive attitude toward the strikers is emblematic of its vacillatory priorities; when he took office, Vinicio Cerezo had the support of nearly 70 percent of the electorate.

In a nationally televised speech, Vinicio Cerezo charged the teachers with seeking personal gain at the expense of other workers and alleged a pay hike would only fuel inflation. The president neglected to mention, however, a recently granted pay raise to soldiers, and the $42 million purchase of two Italian-made military transport planes. That sum could have financed a $45-per-month pay hike for all teachers for nearly two years.

Education Minister Ricardo Gomez summed up the government's position: ``It does not matter how long the strike lasts. We know the teachers will return to work anyway.'' Meanwhile, the current school year may be lost, leaving Guatemala's 50 percent illiteracy rate unchanged.

Since his inauguration in January 1986, the president's chief goal has been merely to complete his term and turn the office over to a freely elected successor. Given the country's history since 1954, when the ouster of reformist President Jacobo Arbenz ushered in an era of military domination, this alone could be seen as impressive. But as Mr. Vinicio Cerezo's term winds down, the symbolic significance of his goal has lost its luster.

Vinicio Cerezo has proven unable to face down the army, push for social and political reforms, or successfully manage the economy. Rather, the civilian president's presence has served to legitimize de facto military rule while deflecting international criticism of continued repression. It is no triumph of democracy.

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