THREE weeks after a second failed military rebellion in less than a year, Guatemala's experiment in democracy is being strained by an armed forces power struggle. The attempted coup against Defense Minister H'ector Gramajo Morales on May 9 has left the embattled general walking a political tightrope to prevent another uprising.
On the one hand, General Gramajo is playing tough, ordering the Army tribunal to prosecute 23 rebellious officers. On the other, he and President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo are trying to tread softly enough to quiet Army unrest.
They have declined to name the civilians involved. And to keep other disgruntled officers from rebelling, Gramajo has promised to shake up the top military commands at the end of next month.
Despite the measured response, Gramajo is unable - or unwilling - to eradicate a prime root of discontent - himself.
``The principal aim of the coup attempt was not so much to overthrow the constitutional government, but to remove Gramajo,'' a European diplomat says.
``A number of officers perceived Gramajo as being too closely connected to the [ruling] Christian Democrats, as conniving with government corruption, and as trying to assure the continuance of [the Christian Democrats'] power through the elections,'' in 1990, the diplomat adds. ``So even though the high command ... successfully repressed the uprising, the root cause is still there.''
For the past three years, Gramajo has been the glue holding together Guatemala's fragile transition from military to civilian rule.
An avid proponent of democracy and the rule of law, the United States-trained general has spearheaded the effort to improve Guatemala's image after three decades of repressive military rule. He has had a knack for wooing Washington legislators concerned about Guatemala's dark history of human-rights abuses. After last year's coup attempt, for instance, he was able to turn the country's internal vulnerability into $2 million in supplemental US military aid.
Gramajo, who is considered the most powerful man in Guatemala, has staunchly backed President Cerezo and his moderate but ineffective Christian Democrats. Even today, as everyone from the Roman Catholic Church to the conservative private sector abandons the ruling party, Gramajo has made the Army into Mr. Cerezo's last pillar of support.
But the pillar is crumbling.
According to well-placed military sources here, many younger conservative officers - not just those involved in the uprising - say Gramajo has betrayed the armed forces for a corrupt political experiment intent on giving space to leftist groups and power to the Christian Democrats.
On the morning of the coup attempt, in fact, troops loyal to Gramajo found a proclamation on the person of coup leader Col. C'esar Quinteros Alvarado. Dated April 5, the unsigned document called for a rebellion for one principal reason: ``The authorities have falsified and corrupted the country's democratization process by constructing the basis to install the dictatorship of ... the Christian Democratic Party.''
Some of Gramajo's detractors are simply disillusioned with democracy.
Despite the influx of a relatively modest amount of US military aid, repeated Army offensives over the past year and a half have been repelled by the Marxist-inspired guerrilla insurgency. Morale in the Army is ebbing. Military hospitals are overflowing. And while only 1,000 rebels are thought to be roaming the highlands, several military experts say they are a greater threat today than when Cerezo took office three years ago.
``What good is democracy for the Army?'' asks one foreign adviser here. ``That's hard to answer.''
But for many, the issue goes beyond democracy to high-level corruption.
Until recently, some Air Force officers were stealing spare parts and selling them to foreign companies, even as their own helicopters languished unrepaired.
But even Gramajo is not immune to corruption charges. As he threatened to audit several Army units on suspicion of corruption last year, he reportedly bought one of Guatemala's largest tracts of land in the eastern corridor.
Army officers are also harshly critical of civilian corruption. ``Corruption is so evident that the Army uses a special term for it: kleptocracy,'' says retired Col. Hugo Tulio Bucaro. The government has been accused of siphoning off crucial development funds to pay salaries to bureaucrats and campaign workers. Now that the November 1990 election campaign is already at full throttle, such charges of abuse are multiplying. One major in the Quich'e department, for instance, said that cohorts of presidential candidate Alfonso Carera ordered him to set aside a large portion of his budget for the campaign.
``The issue is not really corruption but who controls it,'' says one prominent politician here who wished to remain anonymous. ``These younger officers aren't angels. They just want a piece of the pie.''
They also want to clamp down further on left-wing unions. Cerezo, bowing to conservatives after last year's coup attempt, reneged on a ground-breaking socio-economic package signed with the unions, and cut off all negotiations with the guerrillas.
Despite the increased threats to the left, a delegation from the exiled Unified Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition arrived here in April to participate in the National Dialogue, official round-table discussions. But they abruptly fled the country two weeks ago, citing a wave of death threats.
Most analysts here agree that the threats came from right-wing groups connected to the military. ``The fear is the Army is going to lose one of the key achievements of the counterrevolution: silence on the left,'' says Guatemalan political analyst Ricardo Wilson-Grau.
Despite the fact that the fears and conflicts leading to the coup still remain, Gramajo and Cerezo may not be damaged by the rebellion. They may jail enough officers and finagle enough deals to prevent another coup.
Furthermore, the coup conveniently overshadows other problems plaguing the government, such as Cerezo's war on right-wing newspapers, and labor strikes with public teachers and social security workers. It also clouds over the country's widening wealth distribution gap, which has led to greater poverty even as the economy grows at close to 4 percent annually.