GUATEMALA CITY — A DISNEYESQUE fortress with neat, white-trimmed parapets hardly seems a likely home for the Center of Strategic Studies for National Stability or ``Centro ESTNA.'' One does not expect to be greeted by deadly serious Guatemalan soldiers toting Israeli semiautomatic rifles. But it is this setting, in a former military academy, which has contributed to rumors and hard questions about the motive behind United States funding of Centro ESTNA, a two-year-old think tank with controversial links to Guatemala's military.
``I understand the US wanting to give support to independent institutions as part of building up the democratic process. But in this case, I think they're being naive,'' says Marta Altolaguirre, a lawyer and professor at Francisco Marroquin University. She says the true purpose of this program is ``for Gramajo to build political support for the future.''
The founder of Centro ESTNA is recently retired Defense Minister H'ector Alejandro Gramajo Morales, who is widely believed to have presidential ambitions for the 1995 election. It is also said that the English-speaking general is a US favorite.
``He has all the right friends in Washington,'' says one former high-ranking Guatemalan government official. Although General Gramajo currently attends Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government (with support from the US government), he normally presides over major seminars at Centro ESTNA. ``He's omnipresent,'' comments one participant, noting the center's nickname: ``Gramajo U.''
Gramajo could not be reached for comment. But supporters say there's nothing sinister about his participation nor the motives of the organization. ``It's helping to make our country more constitutional, more democratic by pulling together leaders of all sectors of society ... to discuss our country's problems in an open forum,'' says Claudio Riedel, a member of the center-right Union of the National Center party.
Centro ESTNA gives 30-week-long seminars to invited community leaders. There are discussion groups and lectures on factors influencing national and international stability.
Out of 58 participants to date, according to Centro ESTNA records, only 11 were Guatemalan Army officers. The rest were politicians, businessmen, unionists, and representatives of a few small ethnic organizations. So far, the major political leaders of indigenous groups, the unions critical of the government, the Roman Catholic Church, and mainline Protestant churches have declined to participate.
``It's a project to benefit no one party or person. It's for the nation,'' says C'esar Lechuga Chicas, Centro ESTANA's administrative director. But a US official in Guatemala says Centro ESTNA ``does give Gramajo an opportunity to rub shoulders with important leaders.''
In the 1991 US federal budget, the Senate Appropriations Committee made an unusually specific but nonbinding recommendation that $250,000 in aid be spent on Centro ESTNA. Critics say such a recommendation could only result from Gramajo's US connections.
But according to a US official here, Centro ESTNA fits into the US Agency for International Development attempts to ``find ways of strengthening institutions of democracy.'' The US official is, however, ``concerned'' about the large per diem given to participants.
Attendees receive a $60 weekly stipend for three days of seminars, the pay equivalent to a full-time salary of a doctor or lawyer here. The payments have ``pulled some labor union leaders away from the National Dialogue,'' charges one government adviser, referring to peace talks underway between leftist guerrillas and leaders of various sectors of Guatemalan society.
The US is funding training courses for members of the newly-elected Congress. All 116 legislators, rookies and veterans, have signed up.
``The Army is giving a three-week-long seminar to teach, or inform, elected deputies how to behave. It's not a bad idea. I just don't think it's proper that the Army should be organizing us,'' says reelected congressman Edmund Mullet. Congressman Mullet is also organizing an ``alternative program'' to help the newest members of Congress to learn the ropes in the first back-to-back civilian government in Guatemala's history.