GUATEMALA CITY — THE absolute rejection of a military-backed coup by Guatemalan society and the orderly election of a new president last month were hailed as a victory for democratic rule.
But in a country ravaged by 32 years of civil war, rife with human rights violations, and led only briefly by a civilian government, the question of who commands the military is still as important as who is president.
The military has always played an integral role in ruling Guatemala. In 1989, for instance, an Army general was the justice minister. Until recently, the Army built roads, provided basic services, and was the final authority in the northern province of Peten. The National Police and Treasury Police are under Army command. Through its own bank and pension fund, the military has investments in numerous commercial enterprises.
So the appointment of a new defense minister is a significant political event here. Gen. Mario Rene Enriquez Morales is a choice who pleases most.
"Enriquez is a professional with democratic convictions. He thinks civilians should run the show," says Armando de la Torre, a political science professor who had the general as a student.
After a few weeks of temporizing, President Ramiro de Leon Carpio flexed his political authority by removing the hard-liners in the military high command who backed the May 25 coup.
General Enriquez is described by those who know him as more "diplomatic" than many of his predecessors. He has worked on the government peace negotiating team for the past two years. He has been the Army's director of civil affairs, and he speaks a Mayan dialect (65 percent of population is Indian).
"Enriquez is perhaps less military or less professional in appearance. But his attitude and actions are more professional. He has a clearer perspective on the Constitution," says a former high-ranking Army officer. "The majority of today's Army is in the mold of Enriquez. That's why [former president] Serrano's self-coup didn't last," he adds.
The new defense minister and his subordinates come from what is considered a more moderate current within the Guatemalan military. Enriquez was part of an uprising of officers that installed Gen. Efrain Rios Montt in a 1982 coup. Although General Rios Montt reigned over the most brutal, scorched-earth tactics of the civil war, he also promoted a counter-insurgency strategy that appealed to the younger officers.
THE strategy aimed at undermining support for the leftist insurgency by moving toward constitutional civilian rule and promoting economic development to reduce extreme rural poverty. In recent years, the strategy has had varying degrees of support. Enriquez was branded a "socialist" by some officers after a 1987 speech advocating greater attention to job creation and more democratic participation in society.
But he sticks to this viewpoint. In a July 9 interview published by the news weekly Cronica, Enriquez said, "This is an Army for democracy and I am a general for peace.... I hope we can achieve it in the short term. We all need to make an effort to consolidate the peace. And I repeat my statements of 1987, there has to be a solution that addresses the needs of the most poor."
On July 14, Enriquez announced there would be a new emphasis on human rights education for soldiers and the Army would participate in environmental and road-building projects.
"The new high command understands the national reality," says former defense minister Gen. Hector Gramajo. He predicts: "We will see more flexibility and advancement in three areas: combating poverty, honest business contracts [between the Army and the state], and an enlightened Army command."
Indeed, the change in military brass may lead to a breakthrough in stalled peace talks between the government and the rebels. The latest peace proposal calls for international mediation of the talks and invites representatives of the leftist insurgents to participate in a separate national forum on Guatemalan government reforms. As enemies of the state, the guerrillas have never been officially recognized or welcomed here before.
"The military approved this plan beforehand," says a source close to the government negotiations. "But it would have been impossible to get through without changes in the high command."
But human rights activist Frank La Rue cautions reading too much into the failed coup and subsequent military changes.
"I don't think the political structure of Guatemala has changed. The military and business community still control the country. Pragmatists in the Army are opening space for political debate. But the Army is still very much in control," says Mr. La Rue, director of the Guatemala Center for Legal Action in Human Rights.
And La Rue notes that a change in military leadership should not be equated with demilitarization.
To demilitarize society, he says, President de Leon should remove the civilian police from military control, dismantle civil defense patrols, and dissolve the Presidential Guard. Human Rights groups say the civil defense patrols and Presidential Guard have been linked to a number of human rights violations.
"The Guatemalan state should be able to function freely without military influence," says La Rue. "The military shouldn't be the leading faction. But if you go to isolated villages in the Ixcan, there are no schools, no hospitals, no state presence except for the Army garrision."
General Gramajo responds that one should not confuse military influence with a tendency of recent civilian governments to depend on the military because it is the most capable organization in the country. "Why blame the military for being efficient?" he asks.
La Rue counters: "It's what works because it's the only institution allowed to work."