Guatemala's Political Tug of War

President Cerezo's choice of successor has split ruling party and immobilized the government

LAST November, just past the midway point in his five-year term as Guatemala's first civilian President in over 16 years, Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo threw a political knuckle ball. To the surprise of reporters gathered to discuss the issues of the moment, the usually cautious politician put his arm around his boyhood friend and closest associate, Alfonso Cabrera, and offered an endorsement: ``This is my candidate.''

With nearly two years still remaining before the October 1990 elections, President Cerezo had thrown the campaign's first pitch - and, seven months later, it is turning out to be a wild one.

Not only did he embrace a candidate with few qualifications and an unshakable image of corruption. But he initiated a tug of war within his ruling Christian Democrat Party, a bitter primary battle that is immobilizing the government and threatening to explode at the party's nominating convention June 18.

As Mr. Cabrera competes against party patriarch Rene De Le'on Schlotter for the nomination, the Guatemalan Congress is left in limbo. The rivals' vociferous congressional supporters are continually at odds, preventing legislation from either advancing or passing with the needed majority.

``The Congress is in shambles,'' says one Western diplomat. ``All its energy is being poured into the jockeying for candidacies.''

Meanwhile, Cerezo has virtually disappeared from public life - a premature lame duck due to the early campaign and to two debilitating coup attempts in the past year. Government activity has slowed to a virtual halt. And according to Mr. De Le'on's supporters, Cabrera has been draining funds from government ministries for his campaign war chest - and offering money to party delegates to vote for him on June 18.

Cabrera's cohorts deny such charges, saying they reflect De Le'on's bitter awareness that Cabrera will likely win the nomination.

De Le'on helped found the party and has served as an influential minister of development. But Cabrera, as the Christian Democrats' secretary-general for the past five years, has de facto control of the party apparatus. His main qualification is extreme loyalty to Cerezo.

Close associates of both Cerezo and Cabrera say the two friends made a pact when they were aspiring politicians: They would do anything they could to help each other become President. In 1985, Cabrera united the party behind Cerezo and helped the savvy politician win the election. Now it is Cerezo's turn to help Cabrera.

``Cabrera has never wavered from his unlimited, unconditional, total support for Cerezo,'' says a leading Guatemalan political analyst. ``But he has no other qualification to be President - none at all.''

Cabrera, a short, mustachioed man who lacks Cerezo's charisma, has little popular support. He has an image of corruption and no clear political platform.

But if the Christian Democrats can cobble together some sort of unity after their convention, the party will be favored to win an absolute majority in the first round of the October 1990 elections.

``The Christian Democrats will likely return to power mainly because - although they have not fulfilled the promises people expected of them when they came to power - they remain the only party with a national infrastructure and organization capable of mobilizing support at a grassroots level,'' says one European envoy.

The diplomat points out that the campaign itself is an important first step toward democracy. ``If Cerezo survives and hands over power to a democratically elected successor,'' he says, ``then his term will have initiated the consolidation of the democratic process.''

Cerezo and his party steadily los support even as the economy continues to grow faster than last year's 3.5 percent increase.

But economic growth is not reaching most Guatemalans. The Labor Ministry recently announced that that while 50 percent of the population could not cover their basic needs in 1986, 72 percent can't today.

Beyond such economic concerns, there is also a public outcry against continuing military control, a resurgence in human-rights violations, and rampant civilian corruption.

So far, the opposition seems no threat to the Christian Democrats, as nearly every week a new party crops up proclaiming another presidential candidate. But if the Christian Democrats don't win an absolute majority in the first round, they will be more vulnerable to a united opposition in the second-round runoff. -30-{et

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