THE United States should carefully weigh how best to strengthen Guatemala's civilian government without adding to the muscle of its armed forces. Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo is visiting Washington this week in part to press for a hike in military aid. As a result of US budget pressures, Guatemala is slated to receive only $2.4 million this year, about half the previous year's total.
The Reagan administration's initial reaction to the request for increased military aid has been positive. It is to be hoped that the upbeat US response is based on more than its desire to pull Guatemala away from a policy of ``active neutrality'' on Nicaragua's civil war. On June 25 President Cerezo is to host a meeting of Central American leaders at which Costa Rica's regional peace plan will be discussed.
Guatemala's needs must be considered, too. Its armed forces are in firm control of the government, right down to the running of development projects and resistance to economic reforms. It was the Army which decided when to turn the government over to civilian leadership. The previous military government's decision, just before Mr. Cerezo took office in 1986, to grant amnesty to those committing political crimes after 1982 has effectively barred the President from taking any action against the thousands of people accused of committing human-rights atrocities. The extent of those is underscored in a new report from Amnesty International.
Leftist guerrillas in Guatemala are now less of a threat than they were. The US should consider channeling any military aid it sends through President Cerezo rather than through the Defense Ministry, the usual practice. Like economic aid, which lenders often condition on economic reforms, US military aid could be linked to increased civilian control. Mr. Cerezo has not yet been able to shake free of the military's grip. If the US really wants to help strengthen democracy in Latin America, it should help to shift the balance.