Guatemala's Ties With US Worsen Over Rights Cases

WHEN the United States cut off military aid to this country three months ago because of human rights abuses, the Guatemalan government responded by issuing a travel advisory for Guatemalans planning visits to Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. The advisory seemed to mimic US State Department warnings to American travelers planning visits overseas. In this case, Foreign Minister Alvaro Arzu warned Guatemalans that it was dangerous to visit US cities because the US govern- ment couldn't get a handle on crime.

The trading of travel advisories seems to be a fairly harmless tit for tat. But beneath the surface, it underscores resurging tensions between the countries that began with the $3.2 million aid cutoff Dec. 21, US Embassy officials say.

Since then, US officials say they have shied away from public comment in areas deemed sensitive to Guatemala's new president. A new rule permits only US Ambassador Thomas Stroock and the head of Embassy public affairs to talk to the press.

As a result of newly-elected President Jorge Serrano's apparent sensitivity and the heightened tensions, the US Embassy here delayed for two months the release of the State Department's annual human rights report on Guatemala, a report that was highly critical of the previous government and the security forces.

Unlike the US Embassy, Mr. Serrano has gone on the offensive, vowing not to allow big neighbors to "slap us in the face."

"My country may be small and theirs big and powerful, but Guatemala's dignity is the same size as theirs," Serrano said in a recent interview with the Guatemalan news weekly Cronica.

The strain on relations increased February when the US voted to condemn Guatemala for human rights abuses at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The vote to appoint an international human rights monitor to Guatemala failed by 21 to 16.

Despite winning the vote, the Guatemalan government took the US stance as another slight against its sovereignty - against a government that feels it should not be held responsible for the previous administration's record.

Tensions between the two countries reached an unusually public peak in February when Serrano told foreign journalists that he had rejected a US offer to restore military aid.

The worsening relations run counter to expectations. Many observers here believed they would improve with the ascension of Serrano, a conservative with close ties to the US Republican Party.

"Serano feels the United States came down on him hard in Geneva, but I think we need help from the international community," says Edmond Mulet, a Guatemalan congressman who favors having a human rights monitor in Guatemala. "We need the eyes of the world on us at all times."

The US Embassy makes no secret of its dislike of Serrano's predecessor's unwillingness, or inability, to curtail political killings.

"Serrano is a realist, an optimist, a good negotiator, serious and honest," said an embassy spokesman, shortly after Serrano was sworn in Jan. 14. "Given Serrano's personality, the human rights situation should improve."

But so far Serrano has done little to find those responsible for the sexual assault on American nun Diana Ortiz in November 1989 or to investigate the murder of American ranch owner Michael DeVine last June. It was DeVine's murder that led to the cutoff in military aid, US officials say.

"We're trying to give Serrano the benefit of a doubt, but there comes a time when you want to start seeing some progress," another Embassy spokesman said.

Some members of the government and of Guatemala's congress say the US has an unwarranted preoccupation with the country's human rights record.

"It is very easy to condemn our country on human rights, but in the US, who does the same?" asks Sara Mishaan, a newly elected congresswoman.

US officials point out, however, that it is not just the US drawing attention to rights abuses. The Guatemalan government's human rights ombudsman, in his annual report to the congress, recorded 599 extrajudicial killings and 140 disappearances in 1990. Nongovernmental groups cited 1,500-plus killings.

"The new government keeps saying 'give us a chance' - and let's just see whether human rights improve," says Mulet. "It is not a matter of a new government or not. The problem is just the ingrained system we have here."

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