Guatemalan coup, ironically, may bring elections sooner

The military ouster of Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt could hasten the return of civilian rule in the Central American nation. Although it is unclear at this writing which of three recognizable Army factions undertook the coup Monday against the colorful Rios Montt, all three hold that the government's timetable for legislative and presidential balloting was too protracted.

That timetable provided for elections for a constituent assembly in 1984 and for the presidency in 1986. The military, uneasy about its reputation following years of political repression and economic distress, is eager to go back to the barracks and leave governing to the civilians. The Rios Montt ouster appears aimed, in part, to achieve that goal quickly.

Guatemala City reports said General Rios Montt had conceded power after holding out at the presidential palace for four hours.

Since 1970, Guatemala had been ruled by a series of elected military leaders - until General Rios Montt seized power in late March 1982.

The coup puts Brig. Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, the defense minister under General Rios Montt, into power. He is not thought to have political aspirations but is understood to have chafed in his Cabinet post over continuing military rule and ''what it is doing to our military establishment,'' as he put it early this year.

Although most observers would agree that General Rios Montt's government was far less violent than that of his immediate predecessor, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, it was still subject to stiff criticism for repressive tactics.

The earlier Lucas Garcia regime employed repression, torture, and murder as it sought to curb leftist guerrillas. General Rios Montt continued the struggle through limited social programs that involved winning the populace to the government cause. But significant human rights violations continued and Guatemala became something of a pariah in Central America because of these abuses. Some military commanders, particularly younger officers, are known to be angry with their superiors for allowing the military's reputation to become tarnished in the process.

The ouster of General Rios Montt, therefore, had been expected. Open opposition to his rule within the military had grown in recent months. Military commanders seeking his ouster even appeared on television to threaten an overthrow - a strong hint that General Rios Montt was no longer in control.

During his 16 months in office, General Rios Montt proved a colorful figure. To many, he looks a bit like Cantinflas, the Mexican comedian. That became his trademark in the early 1970s, when he unsuccessfully sought the presidency and then retired to become the leader of many younger Army officers, many of whom helped him in seizing power last year.

A born-again Christian whose brother is a leading Roman Catholic bishop in Guatemala, General Rios Montt proved an adroit political leader during his first months in office. He spoke out on the need for social justice and political reform - and seemed to be moving Guatemala in the direction of elections, but not quickly.

Many of those around him say he had so warmed to the presidency and liked the adulation that went with it that he decided to hold on to power longer than originally expected. Many of the younger officers, who backed his coup, had long since broken with him over his one-man rule and the election timetable.

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