Guatemala's moderate chief went too far for far right

For a country that has turned military coups into an art form, last week's foiled revolt was certainly no masterpiece. But for conservative military officers and businessmen, angered by liberal trends in Guatemala's two-year-old civilian government, the failed uprising could have its own sort of utilitarian beauty.

According to political and military analysts here, last Wednesday's attempted coup may force President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo to make compromises with far-right factions of both the Army and private sector. Otherwise, they say, disgruntled conservative officers could force the issue and threaten the country's delicate experiment with civilian rule.

But bargaining with the right would create another dilemma. Analysts say that any new deals with these old poles of power could limit the government's ability to solidify democracy and resolve the country's long-simmering social conflicts.

The extreme right wing has been restless since January 1986, when Mr. Cerezo became the country's first elected civilian President after more than 30 years of de facto military rule backed by conservative business interests. In recent months, he has infuriated conservatives by encroaching on their long-cherished turf: among other things, he has dared to pursue tax increases, wage hikes, limited cultural relations with Cuba, and modest talks with the elusive leftist rebels.

``The government has to understand that the Army is going through a crisis of ideological transformation,'' says Jos'e Luis Cruz Salazar, an ex-Army colonel who now directs a think-tank here. Colonel Cruz Salazar helped lead the United States-backed 1954 coup that ushered in three decades of military dominance.

For the Army, Cruz Salazar says, yielding to a civilian government is ``like transplanting a cactus from the desert to fertile soil. At first, the plant is going to resist. But in the long run, it will be healthier and stronger.''

Tensions have sprung up mainly between conservative young field officers and top commanders who support Cerezo's effort to clean up the nation's tainted image and garner international financial backing. So far, the top officers surrounding commander-in-chief Gen. H'ector Gramajo have prevailed. Last week's revolt fizzled because key Army units linked to the military high command did not support the rebellious battalions, military sources here say.

For the conservative officers, the government's diplomacy went too far: not only did Cerezo meet with rebel leaders last October in Madrid, but in April he let exiled rebel sympathizers return for a four-day visit without taking amnesty or renouncing the armed struggle.

``The Army was furious,'' a Guatemalan political analyst says. ``Here they were fighting the `subversives' in the mountains while the government was opening political spaces for the enemy in the capital.''

Last week's uprising is seen, in part, as a warning against continued flirtation with the rebels.

``What many Army officers want is a definition of the government's position toward the rebels,'' says Gen. H'ector Mar'io L'opez Fuentes, who served as Army chief of staff in the early 1980s. ``The question many have is: who's the government with - them or us?''

The frustration also reflects the Army's failure in the field. Last September, it began a so-called ``end-of-the-year offensive'' designed to wipe out the estimated 3,000 rebels in the isolated northwestern highlands. But the Army has lost an estimated 500 men and is low on supplies. On Friday, a rebel bomb killed eight more Army troops and injured seven.

Reporters who recently traveled to areas of conflict in northern Quich'e Province say there are not enough hospital beds to accommodate the injured. What's more, the Army has not recorded one significant attack against the guerrillas.

``There's a feeling that the process was mistaken. They were not allowed to pursue the counterinsurgency strategy that was effective in the past because of new constraints,'' a political analyst says.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Army killed tens of thousands of civilians with suspected guerrilla ties. Thousands of other leftist sympathizers were ``disappeared'' by right-wing death squads.

But ever since the 1985 elections, the Army has been somewhat restrained by public opinion and presidential decisions.

``The Army used to fully control the presidency,'' Cruz Salazar says. ``It could go over the bureaucracy to do what it pleased. ... The Army still has autonomy, but it no longer rules.''

Cerezo conceded to foreign reporters Friday that serious discontent existed in the Army and needed to be addressed. He said 11 military officials would be investigated. But he pinned most of the blame on seven ``radical civilians'' for taking advantage of susceptible military officers.

Until 1986 when Cerezo took office, conservative business interests, in alliance with the Army, had maintained the lowest tax rates, the lowest wages, and the highest concentration of land ownership in Latin America. In recent months, Cerezo has challenged those privileges.

But by firing a warning shot last week, far-right groups may be able to stall the government's drift toward the left.

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