Guatemala's Leader Signals Compromise on Reform Pact

INTERVIEW: PRESIDENT JORGE SERRANO ELIAS

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A PACT on democratic reforms in Guatemala is expected today, say leftist rebels and government negotiators as they reach the close of a third round of peace talks aimed at ending Central America's longest-running civil war.President Jorge Serrano Elias says he is ready to make the necessary constitutional and legislative changes to implement the accord. "It's not the Bible. We can change it [the Constitution] and we're going to change it," Mr. Serrano said in an interview with the Monitor. Fortifying Guatemala's emerging democracy is the first item on a 10-point negotiating agenda agreed upon in April. The agreement is expected to include electoral reforms and to ensure greater participation of indigenous groups and left-wing parties in the political process. Negotiators are also starting to address the difficult issue of human-rights abuses, which derive from what Serrano calls "the culture of impunity" created by 30 years of war and a foundering judicial system. This week, the Guatemalan government's own human-rights ombudsman, Ramiro de Leon Carpio confirmed that political violence is worsening. He holds both the armed forces and the guerrillas responsible for much of the violence. In the first six months of 1991, there were 321 claims of extra-judicial killings, of which 116 have been confirmed by the ombudsman's office. The United States Congress is taking an increasing interest in the problem of human-rights abuses and the peace process. But Serrano seems to want to shift the focus of the US relationship away from human rights to the common goal of fighting drug trafficking, which is up sharply in Guatemala. Serrano says more opium, marijuana, and cocaine have been captured in the first six months of 1991 than in all of 1990. "And who did it? Our Army," he says. "This is the same Army that some radicals in the US Congress keep under continuous accusation." It was the Guatemalan Army's alleged murder of US businessman Michael Devine last year, and the alleged police kidnapping and torture of Ursuline nun Diana Ortiz, which have helped sour US-Guatemala relations. In December, the US cut off all military aid pending progress on solving these cases. Relations were "very tense," Serrano says. But he has since replaced the defense minister, appointed special prosecutors, and says he's committed to ending the security forces' immunity from conviction. "It doesn't matter what uniform you wear." Based on a recent phone conversation with President Bush and a visit by the top US drug enforcement official, Bob Martinez, Serrano says: "I have the impression this [human-rights] situation has been overcome.... I feel relations with the US are going very well." But US State Department officials have given no indication of backing off on the human-rights issue until some of the key cases are resolved. And the US Congress, while acknowledging Serrano's recent efforts and pledges, also wants to see results. The House of Representatives has passed 1992-93 aid authorization bills that will for the first time restrict economic aid pending progress on human rights, good-faith negotiations with the rebels, tax reform, greater freedom of the press, and control over the military. The Senate has similar bills pending. But Serrano rails at such conditional aid. "I don't like it. I don't like that they say: 'If you do this, I'll give this.' We're not inclined to accept a process of domestication from anybody.... We want a relationship of dignity, of respect, of friendship." The House foreign-aid authorization bill also proposes that the US set up a fund to help the Guatemalan peace process. It would be used to defray the costs of monitoring a cease-fire, demobilizing the combatants, and "assisting in their transition to peaceful pursuits."

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