Guatemalans Cheer Step To Reinstate Democracy

But after Serrano's ouster, public awaits naming of interim president

AFTER a one-week detour down the path of dictatorship, Guatemala appears to be retracing its steps toward democratic rule.

The Guatemalan Congress met in a special session yesterday to formally accept the resignations of President Jorge Serrano Elias and his vice president. An interim president is expected to be appointed before the week's end.

President Serrano's power grab ended on Tuesday as abruptly as it began.

On May 25, Serrano unilaterally dissolved the Guatemalan legislature and judiciary while revoking a range of constitutional rights. He justified the emergency rule as necessary to rid the country of corruption and narco-trafficking. He promised a quick return to democratic constitutional government.

But by Monday, May 31, it was becoming clear that Guatemalan society had little patience for Serrano's methods. Media censorship was either lifting or being blatantly ignored. Two Cabinet members resigned. Public protests - in direct defiance of a ban on assembly - were growing. The Army took no action. Societal fear was ebbing, and international pressure was mounting.

On Tuesday, the last sector of Guatemalan political power structure still supporting Serrano - the military - decided to oust him.

"Responding to the clamor of the people, we hereby restore constitutional rule to Guatemala," Defense Minister Gen. Jose Domingo Garcia Samayoa said.

Confusion reigned most of Tuesday. It was unclear whether a counter coup by the military was underway, or a return to democracy. A marathon bargaining session was held in the defense minister's office, attended by members of the Constitutional Court, opposition parties, media, and business leaders.

The 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, reportedly walked out of the meeting saying: "We are not going to back a military coup dtat with a civilian facade."

But Guatemala's leading business organization said the military is concerned about its image and agreed to reinstall Congress as the ruling body within five days. "We view these events as very positive. It's a legal pathway out of our problems," says Luis Figueroa, a spokesman for the Coordinator of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations.

Guatemalan political scientist Armando de la Torre puts it this way: "Legally, the constitutional court is in charge. Effectively, and we hope temporarily, the military controls the country."

At press time, the leading candidate for interim president is Arturo Herbruger, an elder statesman and respected head of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Sources close to Mr. Herbruger say he is reluctant to serve out the rest of Serrano's term, which ends in January 1996. Herbruger may push for congressional and presidential elections in November, with the new officials taking office in January 1994. But current members of Congress, who would stay in office for another two years, aren't as enthusiastic a bout having early elections.

Other candidates in contention for interim president are constitutional court justice Jorge Garcia Laguardia and former foreign minister Fernando Andrade.

Once it is decided who will be Guatemala's next president, Congress and the Supreme Court will likely begin house cleaning. No one argues with Serrano's claim that an unacceptable percentage of the judges and politicians are corrupt. But how the courts and congress will purge themselves is unclear. "We're entering into unprecedented territory," says Mr. De la Torre.

Serrano himself could be subject to prosecution for violating the constitution if he remains in Guatemala. He is expected to seek asylum in another country.

A conservative politician, not-so-prosperous property developer, and evangelical Christian, Serrano won the presidency as a dark-horse candidate. He was the second successive civilian president in Guatemala in more than three decades. Before becoming president, Serrano served on the National Reconciliation Commission, a body created to lay the groundwork for an end to Guatemala's 32-year civil war. Upon taking office, Serrano actively pursued peace talks with the leftist insurgents. But over the last yea r the talks became stalled on human-rights issues.

Serrano inherited an economic mess. Inflation was at a historical peak of 63 percent. The government was bankrupt. Serrano brought inflation under control, attracted foreign investment, and returned the government to sound fiscal footing. But in adopting the austere, free-market oriented privatization reforms sweeping Latin America, Serrano's popularity ebbed. Strikes and riots marred the final days of his legitimate rule.

Serrano's downfall, say local political analysts, was his inability to compromise. Close associates describe him as unable to accept criticism and not inclined to listen to even his closest advisers. When some Congressional members threatened to investigate him for misuse of public funds, Serrano may have feared that he faced removal from office a la Venezuela's president Carlos Andres Perez. Instead, he opted for the tactics of Peru's Alberto Fujimori.

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