Guatemala's Rocky Path

GUATEMALA'S new president, Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, has promised to keep the country's military in its place - by implication, out of politics.

In Guatemala, however, that promise is hedged by the military's continuing central role in society. All recent civilian leaders, including Mr. Arzu, have worked in tacit partnership with the Army. Or at least with that dominant faction in the Army that favors having a civilian leader and using force only within the context of such leadership.

Guatemala has suffered through three decades of civil war - decades punctuated by military coups. Some 100,000 of its people have died in the conflict. Extrication from that history is key both to economic development and justice within Guatemala, Central America's most populous land, and to regional stability.

Over the past couple of years of relative tranquility, some of Guatemala's legions of refugees have begun to return from camps in Mexico. But Army assaults last year on villages thought to harbor rebels slowed that return. The new president's reassurances that he will push ahead toward peace may rebuild confidence. Guerrilla leaders have said they want to revive the peace talks, which have been trudging on for seven years.

An agreement to end the fighting won't come easily. The rebels demand social changes, which are adamantly resisted by wealthy elites. The future role of the Guatemalan military will have to be negotiated, and a significant segment of the Army would still rather snuff out the rebellion with unrestrained force than talk at all.

Moreover, Arzu won only by a hair, with many voters - particularly those in the countryside - supporting a candidate running as a surrogate for former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt. Many Guatemalans, apparently, pine for a ''strong man'' at the helm.

Arzu will need all the help he can get to firm up the civilian grip on government. The United States, with a long and sometimes dishonorable record of intervention in Guatemala, can start by making it clear that Guatemalan officers implicated in human rights abuses or drug dealing are no longer welcome as military colleagues or intelligence operatives.

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