Guatemala Shifts Right With Choice of President

EVANGELICAL Christian Jorge Serrano Elias walked away with Guatemala's presidential election after capitalizing on popular disillusionment with more mainstream leaders. His election marks a shift to the right and raises concerns about the potential for increased religious tensions between rapidly growing evangelical sects and the country's Roman Catholic majority.

Until recent months a dark-horse candidate, Mr. Serrano is a conservative businessman known for heading the Council of State under Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt, a former dictator who ruled in the early 1980s. He has promised law and order as an antidote to worsening political violence.

Serrano trounced challenger Jorge Carpio Nicolle, a well-known right-of-center newspaper magnate who ran a lackluster campaign. Serrano's Solidarity Action Movement tapped Guatemala's mushrooming network of evangelical Protestant churches and picked up a strong following among Guatemalans loyal to General R'ios Montt. In October, the Supreme Court ruled that a R'ios Montt bid for the presidency was unconstitutional.

``Serrano represents, in a way, the antisystem sentiment that was very present in the Guatemalan electorate during this campaign,'' says Congressman Edmond Mulet, an adviser to Mr. Carpio. ``Serrano was the one who really was able to gather all this sentiment of frustration facing the whole system.''

Sunday's vote marked Guatemala's first transfer of power from one elected president to another, an event United States Embassy officials called ``a watershed for democracy.'' At press time Jan. 7, it appeared less than half of Guatemala's voters had cast ballots.

Guatemala's endorsement of the rightist leader is a switch from the last election, when Christian Democratic President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo received broad support with his pledge to rein in one of Latin America's most repressive Armed Forces.

Most of Mr. Cerezo's promises to voters were not realized. He failed to prosecute a single human rights violator in the military officers' corps, to control graft, or to negotiate peace with leftist rebels. Cerezo's critics claim he vacationed while the country was engulfed in pre-election violence that included, on average, a political assassination each day.

This week, many Guatemalans expressed skepticism that either candidate would end the nation's grinding poverty, curb rights abuses, or bring a close to Central America's longest civil war.

SERRANO himself is not always optimistic about his prospect for changing the country's balance of military and civilian power.

``The military has an infrastructure that goes from the Casa Crema [defense minister's residence] to the country's furthest little hamlet,'' Serrano says. ``For l70 years, the country has depended on the military structure and we're not going to end that overnight.''

US officials, however, believe Serrano is prepared to challenge the Armed Forces' historical role as the country's premier political power. Critics of US policy disagree, saying Serrano will publicly denounce military abuse, but is prepared to quietly grant an amnesty to officers accused of corruption and rights violations.

``The Serrano candidacy fits perfectly into the scheme of the military,'' says Frank LaRue, an exiled Guatemalan labor lawyer and political analyst with the Washington-based Commission on US-Latin America Relations. ``The US is scared. They like Serrano - but they see some big pitfalls.''

Critics also warn of heightened religious tensions between evangelical Protestant sects and Roman Catholics. ``The danger is if Serrano gets to be president and looks upon it as a gift from God, then we've all had it,'' says Congressman Jorge Skinner Klee. ``Then Serrano will really get us into a bloody confrontation.''

Sunday's voting came on the heels of a State Department decision in late December to freeze US military assistance to Guatemala because of the Armed Forces' worsening human rights' record. The move will suspend a $2.8 million military aid program. But a US Embassy official said Washington will continue to send some $100 million in economic aid this year.

Meanwhile, as US officials try to adjust a carrot-and-stick policy, Guatemala's impoverished majority grows more alienated. A swelling population in shacks on the edge of the capital city's municipal dump reflects increasing disenchantment with the political order.

``We don't have much faith in our country's political leaders here,'' says a scavenger, a 19-year-old named Germ'an. ``They talk and talk and talk and the words fly in the wind.''

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