Guatemala's likely President-to-be is optimistic about return to civilian rule

Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, main contender for the Guatemalan presidency, is optimistic about his country's return to civilian rule in January. But whoever wins the Dec. 8 election faces a daunting array of problems: a deteriorating economy, a persistent guerrilla movement, a hostile, ultra-conservative private sector, and an Army reluctant to give up power.

The Army, Guatemala's most powerful institution, will remain the real power even with a civilian government, most observers say.

Mr. Cerezo's only hope of wresting a significant degree of power away from the Army will be to build quickly on the widespread support he achieved in the preliminary elections Nov. 3, many observers say. (Cerezo received 40 percent of the vote and is expected to win the Dec. 8 runoff.)

It is the Army and the private sector that oppose fundamental changes in Guatemalan society, Cerezo says.

Cerezo says he will maintain an ``institutional relationship'' with the armed forces. He says he told the Army that he ``would have a respect for the internal command of the Army.''

Most political analysts here say that under civilian rule, the Army will run the country through the defense minister. The analysts say Cerezo has made a deal with the Army in which several candidates will run for the position but Cerezo will choose the one already agreed upon.

Cerezo says he is in control. In the event of conflict with the defense minister, ``there is no way that I wouldn't make the decision to get rid of him and name another,'' Cerezo said in an interview.

Critics say that Cerezo has weakened the democratic process by agreeing not to prosecute Army officers for alleged human-rights abuses. Cerezo skirts the issue. He promises instead to ``strengthen the courts so they can make investigations. When they consider it right and legal to investigate, we will support them. The function of the president isn't to be a prosecutor.''

``Look, I want to be absolutely frank. I believe that this is one of the most difficult tasks. I realize that even discussing it may jeopardize the process of democratization,'' he said, leaning forward.

Cerezo says he will do nothing to create confrontations or polarize the situation. ``For example, we want to consolidate, modify internal political power inside the country to move the country ahead. But to institute an agrarian reform or imprison Army officers, this we know we are not going to be able to do.''

``But there are other fundamental things -- the respect for the law, not killing people, only arresting someone for cause and not outside the law, promoting a fiscal reform to allow public investment in health and education,'' Cerezo added.

``Taxing the rich would hurt them as much as cutting out a piece of their hand because they never, never pay taxes,'' he says. (Guatemala's tax rate is the lowest in Latin America -- one reason the International Monetary Fund stopped loans to Guatemala in 1984.)

``But it's not the same as taking away their farms, which would create a polarization and cause a showdown,'' he says.

Cerezo plans a ``minimum program'' of directing credit and technical aid to marginal subsistence farmers, and improving education and health services.

Many observers doubt he will be able to accomplish even those minimal goals. ``What is he going to do?'' asks one political and economic analyst. ``How is he going to deal with an economic collapse?''

``I appear too optimistic,'' shrugs Cerezo. ``But I also believe that I should be that way because in Guatemala you can't be a politician without being optimistic.''

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