GUATEMALA CITY — BACKED by the chants of about 2,000 people calling for President Jorge Serrano Elias to resign, on May 27, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu delivered a document to the National Palace demanding a return to democratic rule.
More than 60 civic, academic, religious, and labor union organizations had signed the document, said Ms. Menchu. But not all Guatemalans are united against the coup.
"Serrano's doing the right thing," says cab driver Mirador Flores. "The Congress is a bunch of thieves. The Supreme Court is corrupt. And the attorney general of human rights is too politically involved to be impartial. Finally, we have some law and order."
Similar comments are made by many lower and middle class Guatemalans interviewed. But some say Serrano himself should not be exempt from the purge. "I'm happy because we got rid of the 40 thieves. Now we just have Ali Baba left," said Carlos, who refused to be further identified.
It is not clear that Serrano's actions will reverse his own personal popularity decline. But the drop in common crime since the coup (attributed to heavy police and Army presence) and ousting the Congress and Supreme Court have touched a popular nerve. Perhaps because of media censorship, many do not know or do not care that they are living under a dictatorship now.
"If you took a national poll, I think you'd find the majority support his moves for reasons unrelated to the core of the constitutional problem. They are happy to see crime fall and the congress dissolved," says Mauricio Wurmser, a spokesman for Coordinator of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations.
Fifty percent of Guatemalans are illiterate. Most get their information from radio or television, which have been censored.
Here, an unofficial poll of "about 150 people," done by the National Advancement Party (PAN) on May 28, showed that when asked about the events of the previous days, only 41 percent said a coup had occurred; 15 percent volunteered that the congress had been dissolved; 5 percent said there had been "a loss of democracy."
When asked if they considered Serrano capable of handling Guatemala's problems, 68 percent said no; 65 percent said they were not in agreement with Serrano's "attitude."
"He's no Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori walked among the people the day after his coup. Serrano could not do that. He sent in tanks and tear gas," says a political analyst.
On May 27, Serrano was due to show up at the Supreme Court building to announce the new head of the court. Some 200 members of the court labor union waiting outside were dispersed by riot police.
If opposition leaders begin to be heard via the mass media, public support for Serrano's actions could dissolve. Miguel, a street vendor of jade jewelry, confidently praised Serrano's dismissal of Congress. But when told that evangelical strongman, Ret. Gen. Rios Montt has spoken out against it, Miguel's support for Serrano wavered.
"I don't think Serrano can keep control of the media much longer without causing more problems.... Soon, you will see opinions changing," predicts Alvaro Arzu, secretary-general of the PAN.