Guatemalans' hopes for change dim. Economic woes, political violence prompt criticism of Cerezo

When Vincio Cerezo Ar'evalo was sworn in as Guatemala's first civilian President in 16 years last December, there was a general feeling of optimism and excitement. Many Guatemalans saw in his victory the prospect of greater social justice for the country's poor majority and for an end to the political violence that had earned Guatemala's military government the reputation as the worst human rights violator in the hemisphere.

Now, nine months later, there seems to be a growing sense of disillusionment with Mr. Cerezo and his ability to bring about the hoped-for changes. This is the assessment of a wide range of political, religious, and labor leaders and diplomatic sources.

``People supported the Christian Democrats overwhelmingly,'' says a Guatemalan journalist. ``But Cerezo hasn't done what he said. His program for the first six months of government was to stop the high cost of life or at least control it. But nine months later, everything is going up.''

Still, some of those expressing disillusionment do not solely fault Cerezo. They acknowledge that the President is severely constrained by the Army and the private sector.

A middle-aged security guard adds, ``With the new government, people thought the prices would go down, but they haven't.''

``You can't eat meat now. It's too expensive.''

Almost half the economically active population is estimated to be under- or unemployed, slightly worse than in December.

Despite popular disenchantment with Cerezo, political analysts do not foresee any immediate political challenge to his government. But some warn of the possibility of a spontaneous outburst of frustration, such as the street riots that occurred last year when the military government tried to raise bus fares.

Analysts discard the possibility of a military coup in the near future, since Cerezo has good relations with the military and the conservative private sector.

Cerezo's critics say that he, like Christian Democrat President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte in neighboring El Salvador, abandoned much of his populist program once elected and instead made concessions to the powerful conservative business sectors. Keeping business satisfied is essential to the economic reactivization of the country, say analysts.

In June, Cerezo devalued the Guatemalan currency, as part of an International Monetary Fund-style stabilization plan. He has also removed price ceilings on many basic goods. The plan met with general approval from the private sector and the United States, which granted Guatemala $47 million in loans and grants. But the devaluation caused consumer prices to rise.

Although many political analysts had warned on his election that the private sector might try to destabilize Cerezo because of their concern that his populist policies might endanger their interests, diplomats and political analysts now say Cerezo has developed a harmonious relationship with the private sector. Even private-sector complaints about the hiring of a Swiss firm to monitor prices of exports and imports, in a bid to prevent private sector cheating, haven't clouded that relationship, analysts say.

Likewise, diplomats and political analysts say Cerezo's relations with the powerful military as the country's new civilian President have been better than expected.

These analysts say Cerezo agreed with the military not to attempt prosecutions of Army officers for massacres and political crimes. Few observers say there is the slightest possibility the military would open itself to criticism, let alone prosecution, for actions it feels were necessary to stem the leftist insurgency in the early '80s.

The Army, through its massacres of Indian villagers sympathetic to the guerrillas, severely curtailed the actions of the most powerful guerrilla group. Although guerrilla organizations remain active in the northern jungles and in the mountains near the economically strategic farms of the south coast, their movement is not seen as a threat to the Cerezo government at the moment.

Military abuses in the countryside have fallen sharply, but the Army keeps tight control. ``There's no question about who still runs things in the countryside,'' says a well-informed religious source. ``It's the Army.''

Although the Army's wave of massacres was essentially over by the end of 1982, some abuses in the countryside continue, according to the Roman Catholic Church, human rights observers, and political analysts.

Human rights observers are also disturbed by what appears to be a continuation of urban political killings. The government has been sensitive about the issue, saying they are common crimes. But many are assassinations without robbery, and the bodies of kidnapped persons, showing signs of torture, are found almost daily. ``It's not just common crime'' is the response from diplomats, religious sources, and local analysts.

Still, nobody knows exactly who is responsible for the killings and disappearances, although analysts suspect the traditional sources -- Army intelligence (G-2), ultra-right groups, some landowners, some members of the conservative business sector, civil defense, and local Army and police units.

Cerezo has acknowledged the limits of his control over the military, but sources close to him say he hopes to gradually institutionalize civilian control in a nonconfrontational manner.

Cerezo's refusal to set up a special commission to investigate past Army and police-linked disappearances has brought his relations with Guatemala's only human rights group, the Mutual Aid Group (GAM), to the breaking point. Cerezo has implied that GAM, a group of relatives of those who disappeared under military rule, is controlled by leftists bent on discrediting his government. GAM leader Nineth Garc'ia says Cerezo ``doesn't want to do anything [about the disappeared] because of the opposition of one group, the Army.''

On Friday, GAM asked to meet with Cerezo. But he declined. Instead, a government spokesperson announced the formation of a government commission that would investigate the cases of the disappeared. If the disappeared were not found by the new year, they would be assumed dead, he said. And the government would pay a monthly stipend to the family. GAM denounced the proposal as an attempt to avoid a real investigation of the disappeared and an attempt to buy off the families.

Guatemala's relatively independent Central American policy has been a target of US pressure since Cerezo's inauguration, say informed sources. The US funds rebels trying to bring down the leftist Nicaraguan government. Cerezo opposes aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and has stayed out of the conflict. This foreign policy has been one of the only things to bring Guatemala prestige internationally. Some analysts and diplomats have noted a gradual cooling of Guatemalan-Nicaraguan relations, although it isn't clear whether this is merely a change in Guatemala's attitude or a result of US pressure.

The US Embassy and the Guatemalan government deny there is pressure. But informed sources say pressure exists. They say the US has let Cerezo know that economic aid would be more likely if his policy changed.

Analysts say despite Washington's stated support for emerging democracies, Cerezo didn't receive an invitation to visit the White House during his trip this week to the US to address the UN General Assembly. He was scheduled to speak yesterday.

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