Public Demands Lead to Reforms In Guatemala

After protests oust the president, congress and judiciary are targeted

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR one tense week in 1993, Guatemala teetered between democracy and dictatorship.

In the name of wiping out corruption, on May 25, 1993, President Jorge Serrano Elias decided to emulate Peru's President Alberto Fujimori by abolishing the Congress and judiciary.

But unlike Peruvians, who have backed Mr. Fujimori, Guatemalan society rejected Mr. Serrano's autogolpe or self-coup. Youths tied black ribbons around trees to mourn the ``death'' of democracy. Guatemala's business, social, Indian, and labor forces opposed Serrano via public declarations and demonstrations.

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Surrounded by hundreds of supporters on the steps of the downtown cathedral, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, an eloquent voice for Guatemala's indigenous population, denounced the self-coup. Ms. Menchu met for the first time with the country's most powerful business coalition to plot Serrano's removal.

The outcome of Serrano's coup might have been different 10 years earlier when the Army was torching Indian villages in its war against Marxist guerrillas. But since 1985, Guatemala's generals have accepted a democratic transition, though Indians continue to complain of repression. Neither the Army's traditional allies, the business elite, nor the rest of society supported Serrano.

He fled the country on June 1. The Guatemalan Congress voted to replace him with former human rights ombudsman Ramiro de Leon Carpio.

Guatemalans rejected Serrano's methods, but they approved of his motive: to purge the Congress and judiciary of corruption. President De Leon has made that mandate a top priority.

``The corrupt should leave the state because this is the popular clamour,'' De Leon said. Two months later, Congress hadn't budged. But according to a September poll, 91 percent of Guatemalans still wanted the purge.

Responding to Congress's foot-dragging, protesters from Indian, labor, and other groups staged a sit-in in the legislative chamber to support De Leon. Mug shots of 16 allegedly corrupt congressmen were published in full-page advertisements, paid for by a business association. The photo caption read: ``If these are the fathers of the nation, wouldn't you prefer to be an orphan?''

Eventually, about half of Guatemala's 116 legislators resigned. The rest refused to go. Some balked over the purge because they saw it as a political maneuver to reduce their party's influence in the legislature. The weekly newsmagazine Cronica reported that the Christian Democrats were worried about losing their congressional immunity and, if the judiciary was purged, special favors from friendly judges.

Serrano hadn't had a majority in Congress. To get legislation passed, he made payoffs, say congressional sources requesting anonymity. Indeed, in his address justifying the autogolpe, Serrano complained of having to ``submit to political blackmail'' by congressmen.

``Serrano overcame opposition to legislation through bribes and threats,'' says former Defense Minister Hector Gramajo. ``Proof? There are no receipts. But it is widely believed he oiled the mechanism of Congress.''

Congressmen have also been accused of accepting bribes to pass bills favoring particular companies, running a car-theft ring, and protecting drug traffickers.

``Since 1985 [when Guatemala returned to democratic rule], there have been about 15 cases where a member of Congress has been accused of common crimes,'' says Armando De la Torre, dean of the graduate school at Franciso Marroquin University, Guatemala City. ``Each time, the Congress has refused to let a member of its club be brought to justice.''

De Leon shattered the impasse over purging the Congress and judiciary in November. He brokered a pact that would elect a new Supreme Court and let Congress stay in office until early elections, possibly in August. In exchange, De Leon won 43 constitutional reforms, mainly aimed at reducing corruption and strengthening democratic institutions.

Key reforms include:

* A weakening of congressional immunity. The Congress will no longer decide if one of its own has broken the law. The Supreme Court will determine whether to lift immunity.

* The end of all ``confidential'' spending by officials. Serrano had an annual, constitutionally mandated, $10.6 million slush fund, supposedly to cover extra secretarial help, security, intelligence operations, and other unbudgeted costs. The fund was also used for political favors and personal enrichment. (See story at left.)

* Prohibition of transfer of funds earmarked for public works into the general operating budget. ``This is an excellent move,'' De La Torre says. ``Very often, politicians enriched themselves by transferring funds.'' The budget will be published annually and an audit of expenditures made. The comptroller general and attorney general will be appointed by Congress, not the president.

The 43 reforms were put before the Guatemalan public in a referendum (the first of its kind) on Jan. 30. The referendum passed, but only 15 percent of registered voters participated. Many Guatemalans either didn't understand the relevance of the referendum or abstained from voting to object to De Leon cutting a deal, allowing allegedly corrupt congressmen to stay in office.

Since the referendum, public interest in anticorruption campaign has waned here. But no one is claiming a victory over graft. Guatemalan institutions are under pressure from increasing US-bound cocaine traffic.

``There's always been corruption at many levels, although not on the scale of schemes in Brazil or Venezuela,'' says Edmond Mulet, former president of the Guatemalan Congress and now ambassador to the US. ``With a democratic goverment and free press, it becomes more visible. The president's cleansing effort has been a good one.''

But Mr. Mulet says the problem doesn't reside solely in the government institutions. ``Corruption is a two-way business. We haven't seen a cleansing of the private sector yet.''

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