Guatemala inches forward. Shadows of history dim hopes for quick change

Only five years ago, Guatemala's leaders reportedly would gather for breakfast to decide which of their opponents would be killed that week. Today, Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo is inching his country toward a working democracy -- though not as quickly as his critics would like.

``In Central America, even the smallest step is a revolutionary step,'' Mr. Cerezo argues.

Just five months into his presidency, he insists that only by moving with extreme caution can he hope to shift Guatemala away from a 30-year heritage of military rule and human rights abuse toward a democratic path.

But critics in the opposition demand action.

``The people expected a lot and he has given them nothing,'' says former presidential candidate, moderate conservative, Jorge Serrano. ``Matters could get out of control.''

If progress doesn't come quickly, Cerezo will face the consequences of growing popular impatience.

Cerezo refuses to investigate military officers accused of past human rights abuses. He has rejected the idea of a land reform. He has adopted a conservative economic stabilization program. These actions sit oddly on the shoulders of a reformist leader. But the shadows of Guatemala's violent history dim any hopes for quick change.

``Vinicio holds perhaps 30 percent of the power at the moment,'' estimates the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Guatemala, Msgr. Juan Gerardi. ``The private business sector and the Army still have the rest.''

So far, the new civilian Christian Democratic President has done nothing to challenge the military, beyond occupying the presidential office to which generals had become accustomed. Indeed, last month he went so far as to inaugurate one of the Army's controversial model villages for civilians who have been driven from their homes by the Army's counterinsurgency campaign. Although the civilian government has put the conflict zones under nominal civilian control, the military maintains a determining influence.

``Cerezo has had less trouble with the military than he should have had,'' comments one Western diplomat caustically. ``He's done everything but put on a uniform, and he has less control over the Army than he might have had because of the way he is dealing with them.''

But Mario Solorzano, a left-wing opposition leader from the Social Democratic Party, is less inclined to fault the President on this score. ``The Army is a real power in Guatemala,'' he says. ``Why pretend it isn't? And we political parties have to deal with it like we deal with any real power.''

The most notable point on which Cerezo has avoided friction with the Army is over human rights violations. Human rights observers estimate that between 1966 and 1985, 38,000 people disappeared and 100,000 died. The human rights group Amnesty International says it has information on 5,000 political killings between 1978 and 1980 alone.

Despite the widespread belief that the military was directly responsible for the bulk of those killings, Cerezo has steadfastly opposed demands that the government should bring those responsible to justice, `a la Argentina. Nineth Garc'ia, head of the Mutual Support Group of relatives of disappeared people, stormed out of a meeting with Cerezo in early June accusing him of ``being in bed with the Army.'' Cerezo had postponed the formation of a commission to investigate the fate of the disappeared in Guatemala.

This decision, argues one Western observer monitoring human rights developments here, illustrates that ``there has been no policy change with regard to human rights'' since the civilian government took office.

Cerezo did disband one of the most notorious security units, the Department of Technical Investigations of the National Police, earlier this year. But the observer points out that the department has been dismantled and re-formed under another name three times since 1966.

``Vinicio would like to introduce a new human rights policy,'' which would require a major overhaul of the military, especially its intelligence arm, the G-2, the same observer says. ``But he is also a politician, and many good intentions get waylaid by political ambition.''

Or political caution. This is clearly a factor behind Cerezo's reluctance to embark on any serious land reform, even in a country where a small minority control 70 percent of the cultivable land, while a poverty-stricken peasantry clamors for a few acres.

Cerezo justifies his stance by pointing to neighboring El Salvador, where fellow Christian Democratic President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's efforts at land reform ``have set the private enterprise totally against him, while on the other hand the guerrillas are still there.''

The government's anxiety not to alienate Guatemala's powerful business class, meanwhile, is also reflected in its economic stabilization plan. Chamber of Commerce President Peter Lamport, however, says the plan gives him no cause for alarm.

``In the short term,'' argues one European diplomat, ``Cerezo's problems are not with the military or with the private sector, they are with his friends -- the left wing of his party, the trade unions, the peasant farmers.'' But those groups' potential for disruption is limited by their priority, which ``is to ensure that this democratic experiment does not fail,'' says the diplomat.

At the same time, such organizations are precisely those that suffered past political repression most brutally. The low level of general political organization in Guatemala is seen by many here as a key problem stunting democracy's growth.

``I don't have a serious political opposition attacking me from ideological positions,'' says Cerezo. ``The result is I am stuck with only two ideological opponents, the extreme right and the guerrillas.'' This, he suggests, ``could be fatal'' for Guatemala's democratic opening.

But the task of recreating mass organizations as the building blocks of democracy is daunting ``when the bases have been destroyed'' by years of political assassinations, says the Roman Catholic bishop of Cob'an, Msgr. Gerardo Flores.

``We are living in a lame society just beginning to take its first steps,'' Interior Minister Juan Jos'e Rodil says. ``We cannot expect to become a Sweden or a Switzerland overnight. We are in transition toward democracy.''

Whether that transition is accomplished, however, will depend heavily on the President's political skills in weakening the stranglehold on power that the Army and private sector have long enjoyed, without provoking too violent a reaction from the military.

Cerezo has so far chosen the path of prudent nonconfrontation, arguing that the very existence of the Christian Democratic administration means that ``the government is no longer working the way that the traditional power groups who wielded specific political power operated.''

But as the President himself acknowledges, his cautious approach to those power groups implies a serious risk, that Mr. Solorzano, the Social Democratic leader, points out. ``The Cabinet is sold on the idea that conciliation with the hardest lines is necessary now in order to make advances later. Government leaders insist that it is only temporary.''

But how easy, Solorzano wonders, will it be to break the pattern once it is set? First in series of four. Next: Guatemala's economy

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