Army coup shifts Guatemala . . . toward the center

As the dust begins to settle on this week's military coup d'etat, Guatemala appears to have swung slightly centerward.

But in a nation where appearances often are misleading, this assessment by Guatemala specialists can at best be only tentative.

Still, the emergence of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt as leader of the new five-member, all-military junta running the country is an indication of movement away from the rightist military governments of the past three decades.

Although he retired from the Army a decade ago and suffered a serious defeat in 1974 presidential balloting, General Rios Montt has kept up a variety of military and political contacts, mainly with younger and more moderate individuals in the Army and in civilian life.

Moreover, he has long been at odds with Guatemala's military leadership, claiming it had little interest in the country's 5 million people and arguing that instead of perpetuating itself in power, the military should actively be moving toward democratic rule.

He has frequently urged that his scenic land of volcanoes, lakes, and rainforests ''opt to join the advancing world,'' as he put it in an interview several years ago.

General Rios Montt apparently had the ear of a number of young officers -- colonels and majors -- who thought similarly. It is well known that some of these officers have been deeply concerned with the repressive tactics used by senior officers of the Guatemalan Army and by the successive military-dominated governments.

Many of them believe that Guatemala's current civil strife, which borders on a civil war between leftist guerrillas and the government, springs from an antiquated social structure in which the few possess the majority of the nation's wealth. These Army officers want to change this situation with major social and economic reform.

The views of General Rios Montt and the young officers obviously coincide. It seems likely that they shared not only similar ideas, but a deepening concern over the presidential elections last month in which Army Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara Rodriguez outpolled three opponents in official results.

The new junta in Guatemala charged the election was fraudulent.

The coup was not unexpected; there had been rumors for weeks that there was a stirring within the military. In some quarters, there had been expectation that elements within the military might step in prior to last month's voting for the presidency. There had been a hue and cry within the military over General Guevara's selection as candidate. But incumbent President Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia managed to keep the lid on this incipient military unrest during the final weeks of the campaign.

Nevertheless, plans for the coup apparently were hatched at a meeting of colonels in the home of General Rios Montt in January. They set no specific date. They simply agreed to move at an appropriate time.

With the election over and General Guevara officially certified the winner, it is understood that General Rios Montt and several civilian political leaders got together. The result of these meetings was an agreement by the political groups to support this latest coup. This support includes that of Guatemala's Christian Democratic Party, whose top leadership has been decimated in the past two years by killings and disappearances.

It will take several days for the new government to take hold following the largely bloodless coup. But its approach is already taking shape. In a message issued after consolidation of power, the junta said it has a three-pronged goal of fighting corruption in government, respecting human rights, and putting Guatemala on the road to democracy.

How effective the new government will be in achieving these goals remains to be seen. But they are very much the sort of approach one would expect from General Rios Montt.

At the same time the problem of dealing with leftist guerrillas, who are particularly active in the rugged reaches of Guatemala's northwestern countryside, will be the most immediate one for the new government.

General Rios Montt, as an Army officer during an earlier civil war with leftist guerrillas in the 1960s, was particularly effective in granting amnesty to many of the guerrillas. The new government may attempt something similar this time.

But the guerrillas' struggle is different now from what it was then. The guerrillas are stronger, more ideologically oriented, and possess greater outside support, in the view of Guatemalan army officers. These officers say the guerrillas are being supported both logistically and tactically by Cuba. Like General Rios Montt, they oppose any links for Guatemala with Cuba.

On the other hand, it turns out that Washington has maintained close contact with several of coup planners -- although there is no indication that the US had anything to do with this week's developments.

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