Guatemalans and US Put Pressure On President to Restore Democracy

Labor, religious, and political groups mount protests as US places aid and trade benefits under review

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor. Peter Grier in Washington contributed to this report.

THERE'S a saying here that sums up many Guatemalans' feelings about this week's sudden shift from a troubled democracy to a `temporary' dictatorship: Salir de Guatemala para caer en `Guatepeor.'

Loosely translated, it means going from "Guate-bad" to "Guate-worse."

While President Jorge Serrano Elias shows no sign of backing away from Tuesday's suspension of congress and the judiciary, diplomatic and economic pressure could make life more difficult for this Central American nation of 9 million people.

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Americas Watch, a Washington-based human rights group, has asked the United States to suspend all except humanitarian aid. On May 26, the US State Department announced that the entire $67 million program of aid for Guatemala is now threatened.

(In fiscal 1992, US development and food assistance totaled about $47 million; separate economic support funds totaled $20 million - though only $9 million of that was actually disbursed. The Guatemalan armed forces also received about $270,000 worth of military training funds.)

But perhaps more damaging to the local economy and Mr. Serrano's cause could be the call by US labor rights groups to revoke Guatemalan industry's tariff-free access to the US market for certain products.

"We're calling for the suspension of Guatemala's General System of Preferences [GSP] benefits unless constitutional order is reinstated immediately," says Stephen Coats, director of the US-Guatemala Labor Education Project.

Guatemala's labor practices are already under review by the US Trade Representative's office. A decision to put Guatemala under a six-month review to test compliance with recent labor reforms was expected to be announced by the White House on June 1.

Given Serrano's suspension of the right of public protest and strikes, analysts expect US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to consider terminating Guatemala's trade benefits.

Last year, some $200 million worth of Guatemala-made products were exported to the US. Business organizations here say cutting off the GSP could cost Guatemala some 100,000 jobs.

It is not clear yet how Serrano's coup will affect plans for regional free trade pacts. And it's not clear that the business community feels strongly enough to pressure Serrano for a return to democratic rule.

But traditional opposition groups are starting to mobilize. Supreme Court justices signed a resolution declaring Serrano's actions unconstitutional.

Dozens of human rights, religious, labor union, student, and political organizations planned to gather - in violation of Serrano's decree against demonstrations - in the capital's central square Thursday afternoon to present a signed document rejecting Serrano's actions. The pretext for the gathering is to celebrate an open air mass in front of a Roman Catholic cathedral located adjacent to the presidential palace.

"We see a growing consensus among all sectors of Guatemalan society...against Serrano because he has broken the institutional framework of the democracy and we all now stand on shaky ground," says Amilcar Mendez, one of the protest document signers and president of the Council of Ethnic Communities Runujel Junam, an indigenous human rights group.

But labor union leaders are cautious. They want to gauge how much international sympathy (and thus some measure of protection) there is for direct action against Serrano. Although Serrano hasn't completely outlawed union activities, the laws against assembly mean that if more than five people gather without permission, they may be subject to arrest.

Indeed, the laws of detention are now sufficiently open that union leaders fear arrest on almost any pretext. "Everyone is taking precautions to prevent being captured. We're not all meeting together, and we're staying in different locations," says Dino Arana of the Union of Guatemalan Workers.

Except for official government news broadcasts and the traditional "crisis" marimba music, commercial radio programming has been suspended.

The government is censoring all nongovernmental media. The independent newspaper Siglo XXI has stopped publishing, rather than accept government censors. Early Wednesday, the printing plants of local newspapers were cordoned off by hundreds of police in full riot gear to prevent distribution of the papers because they hadn't been vetted by censors.

"Next week, we'll probably have to let the censors in and begin publishing again," says Juan Luis Font, an editor at Siglo XXI. "But there will be blank spaces in the newspaper to mark censored stories. We want our readers to know we believe in democracy and cannot support what is happening," he says.

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