Guatemala coup seems to please most of country

Even though he has thwarted a newly elected government from taking office, Guatemalan strong man Efrain Rios Montt has captured at least temporarily the support of much of his nation.

In this capital city, in towns, and in the countryside, one finds few words of criticism for the born-again Christian general who was put at the country's helm in a coup March 23. Interviews with men and women from all walks of life reflect the almost universal acceptance of the three-man junta led by General Rios Montt.

Guatemalans say they are relieved to have a government that appears committed to honesty and to rooting out the corruption and political killings associated with the four-year regime of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia.

Traveling north by bus toward the region of Alta Verapaz, through a varied landscape of mountain passes, arid desert dotted with cactus, and then verdant alpine valleys where dairy cattle graze beside white egrets, a passenger from a finca (farm) near Lago Izabal offered her analysis of the new government:

''Lucas Garcia wasn't all that bad. It was the men around him who were corrupt,'' she insisted. ''But now Rios Montt is going to do something about corruption, so it's better for the country as a whole, and I'm all for it.''

A taxi driver in Coban, a small town surrounded by lush coffee fincas and towering pines shrouded in thick gray clouds, said he was very hopeful. ''There was a certain stubbornness in the Lucas Garcia government. Now the people have welcomed the change. It's a peculiar reaction to a coup,'' he said. ''Everyone is happy.''

The business community was ''extraordinarily happy'' as well, said a businessman in the colonial Spanish capitalUFquote'You can't change everything in one coup, but there have been too many murders. Now maybe it will stop.'

of Antigua, about 45 kilometers to the south of Guatemala City:

''I know one woman whose automobile and motorboat dealership was doing very poorly,'' he said. ''But the coup was on a Tuesday and by the following Sunday, she had sold three boats. ''The people have regained their confidence.''

In Guatemala City's main plaza, beneath pink- and violet-flowering trees, a man selling Batman and Spiderman capes and cowls considered the new situation:

''Before the coup, people were uneasy,'' he said. ''Little by little, things will start getting better. You can't change everything in one coup, but there have been too many murders. Now maybe it will stop; thank God the government did change.''

Across the street and alongside the light-green National Palace, several women with red and blue plastic buckets queued up at a water faucet. A young soldier cradling an automatic rifle alternately watched the women and the traffic. He started when approached and nervously flicked the safety as he looked straight ahead:

''It's better for me,'' he said quietly, ''and better for everyone.''

The owner of a store selling designer jeans near the plaza pointed out that ''there are still many problems in this country. There is unemployment and there are guerrillas. We have years of peace and years of unrest,'' he said. ''This time I hope we'll get two years to straighten things out and then hold presidential elections. Then,'' he said, smiling, ''the tourists will come back.''

Alvaro Arzu, a lawyer and Guatemala City's mayor-elect, suggests that the mood of elation in the country may even transcend the powerful personality of General Rios Montt and his pledges to attack corruption.

''Many people are simply happy that the coup took place, that there was a change. It was a positive thing,'' the blond, mustachioed Mr. Arzu told the Monitor. But he cautioned that the junta's suspension of the Constitution and ban on political-party activity would not be healthy in the long run.

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