Guatemala's Suspension of Democratic Rule Follows Precedent Set by Peru's Fujimori

GUATEMALAN President Jorge Serrano Elias appears undaunted by the negative reaction - at home and abroad - to his suspension of democratic rule here.

The Clinton administration issued a statement condemning "this illegitimate course of action," which "threatens to place Guatemala outside the democratic community of nations." The United States is this Central American nation's No. 1 trading partner.

With the backing of the powerful Guatemalan military, Mr. Serrano on Tuesday dissolved the legislative and judicial branches of the government, saying he would rule by decree until elections for a new National Assembly were held in 60 days. The rights of free press, movement, and public protests have also been suspended. The presidents of the Guatemalan Congress and the Supreme Court were put under house arrest.

The Serrano administration is the second elected civilian government after some three decades of military rule. Serrano's decision to abort the fledgling democracy also drew widespread criticism from the European Community, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and the Organization of American States, which called for a United Nations General Assembly meeting to be held on Guatemala within 10 days.

Serrano insists he is "a democrat who believes in democracy" and vows not to stay in office beyond the end of his elected term. But in nationwide radio and television broadcasts early Tuesday, and a press conference later, he explained that because of "irresponsible" legislators and corruption and party politics in the judicial branch, the country had become "impossible to govern."

Two members of Serrano's Cabinet resigned immediately. Labor Minister Mario Solorzano said, "We are against corruption too. But it won't be solved by destroying the institutions we've labored to build."

After escaping house arrest, Guatemala's congressionally appointed human rights ombudsman, Jorge Ramiro de Leon lambasted Serrano's actions as "illegal and immoral." He warned the Guatemalan public to respond quickly, because "it may be the last opportunity we have to restore the democratic process."

SERRANO'S actions parallel those of Peru's President Alberto Fujimori, who seized power last year in a similar way.

Serrano made his moves after weeks of strikes and street protests over large hikes in electricity prices and a dispute with students over public transport.

Rumors of a military coup have circulated for months. On May 21 Serrano announced the creation of a special anti-riot squad to act against dissidents. The same day, 10,000 people marched peacefully throughout the city, some carrying signs calling for Serrano's resignation.

But Serrano has suspended the rules of democracy with far less justification than Fujimori, says David Scott Palmer, director of Boston University's Latin American studies program.

"Fujimori faced a guerrilla movement on the brink of taking over, an annual inflation rate of 2,600 percent, and an extremely corrupt judiciary that simply wasn't functioning," Mr. Palmer says. "Serrano may be using the Fujimori example without having exhausted less drastic alternatives. It's a dangerous precedent," he adds.

Analysts say that by holding new elections, Serrano can strengthen his party's position in the legislature. The three-party congressional alliance he needed to get laws passed dissolved a month ago.

But on May 9, his party did unexpectedly well in municipal elections, winning 103 of 267 contested districts.

Dissolving the judiciary is a gesture designed to mollify the military, some observers here say. For the first time, several Guatemalan officers have been convicted of human rights abuses and sentenced to prison terms.

A thorn in the sides of the military and Serrano, human rights ombudsman De Leon recently won a court decision stating that the government's electricity hike violated citizens' human rights. His job also often puts him in the position of criticizing Army actions. And he is considered a presidential contender in the 1995 elections.

Serrano says it is "absolutely false" that he intended to fire or suspend the activities of De Leon, as implied in his national address. Nonetheless, police attempted to place De Leon under house arrest on Tuesday.

Serrano says the Guatemalan Army has no role in the suspension of democratic rule, and the Army has kept a low profile. In some locations, police have taken up posts normally occupied by soldiers. One political analyst here says the Army wants Serrano's action to be seen as a civilian coup, so if it fails, the public will welcome military rule.

The capital city remained quiet yesterday morning. Street vendor Manuel Lopez said with a shrug, "Most of my customers do not understand what this means. Some are afraid it will hurt tourism. I hope it means the government is getting tougher on crime."

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