Guatemala Inches Toward Democracy

GUATEMALANS went to the polls Nov. 11, determining that for the first time in decades the transition of power from one elected civilian government to another will take place at the beginning of the new year. This is a democratic trend almost unprecedented in Central America. And as in much of the region, a fragile democracy draws on resolve at home while seeking the right kind of support from abroad. The road to democracy in Guatemala has not been easy. Not only does the country battle a long authoritarian tradition, but ethnic divisiveness (nearly half of the 9 million population is Mayan) and one of Central America's highest illiteracy rates (52 percent) make the foundation of democracy shaky at best.

Nevertheless, the recent elections were accompanied by three extraordinary phenomena. First, there was no interference in the electoral process by the Marxist insurgents who have terrorized the country for 30 years. Second, former dictator Gen. R'ios Montt, disqualified from competing in the elections, chose to respect Guatemalan courts and peacefully watch the elections as a bystander. Finally, the army, for years the dominant player in the nation's politics and a constantly cited abuser of human rights, refrained from interfering in the democratic process.

This does not mean tranquillity has set in. Political violence from the right and the left has been on the rise. Since his election in 1986, Christian Democratic President Vinicio Cerezo has weathered two coup attempts, in May 1988 and May 1989. Put this together with economic disparity between the ``haves'' and the ``have-nots'' plus rising levels of criminal violence, and doubts remain about the viability of democracy in Guatemala.

Polls taken over the last six months indicate that the percentage of the population that believes democracy is the best form of government for Guatemala fluctuates from as much as two thirds to as little as one quarter. Moreover, voter participation in November dropped to 57 percent from 70 percent in 1985 - an unsettling sign considering the context. However, the seeds of democracy have been planted and the institutions that Guatemalans are struggling to develop - stable political parties, trade unions, an independent judicial branch, and a free, competitive press - could help define the country's future.

Justifiably concerned with State Department reports of a ``resurgence of political violence'' in 1989, President Bush decided this year to cut military aid to Guatemala by 68 percent (currently $3.2 million) and economic assistance by 23 percent (currently $112 million). It's not unreasonable to use aid in an attempt to influence the Guatemalan government and restrain its army.

But while foreign-aid cuts will play well at home, the president and Congress must not lose sight of our interest in the region. Let security and economic assistance be debated. But as Guatemalan democracy inches forward, US aid meant to assist democratic institution-building should be augmented, not decreased.

A nominal $643,000 was sent to Guatemala this year to supply materials and provide education and training for the November elections. A current rural education program (at a cost of $6 million) conducted by the US Agency for International Development in cooperation with the Guatemalan private sector is expected to increase Guatemala's literate population by 1 million over the next couple years. Projects like these are significant investments that can strengthen nascent democratic institutions.

Is lasting democracy just a pipe dream for Latin American culture? That was the thinking about Germany and Japan at one time. And we need only think of the evolution of democracy in these two countries to remember the powerful role democratic institutions play in shaping a nation's values and character.

US aid will not lift Guatemalans from their social and economic misery. Nor is it our national task to do so. But even modest amounts of assistance can help Guatemala build the democratic infrastructure necessary to solve its own problems. And democracy and stability in Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America, are not only in the region's interest, but in our interest as well.

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