Guatemalans Struggle to Restore Democracy

TREES along Guatemala City's roads are sprouting black appendages. At night, they look like ghoulish scarecrows with boneless arms flapping in the breeze.

The black plastic ribbons tied to tree trunks are a sign of mourning. "Democracy has died here, and we want the people to know it," says Jose Eduardo Valdizan, spokesman for the National Advancement Party (PAN).

Guatemala enters a second week under a "temporary" dictatorship, with political, labor, business, and civilian organizations struggling to build opposition to President Jorge Serrano Elias.

On May 25, Mr. Serrano suspended democratic constitutional rule here by dissolving the Congress and Supreme Court. He also suspended some constitutional rights, including freedom of expression and assembly and freedom from arrest without warrant.

The coup has brought international condemnation and cutoffs of aid from the United States and some European nations.

But at home, Serrano has kept an iron grip on the media.

"We can't speak to the people. We can't get our message out on the radio. It is all censored. Our phone lines are cut. People only know what the government wants them to know," says human rights activist Amilcar Mendez.

Serrano is maintaining the upper hand. "He is not popular.... he is power-sick. But he is intelligent and is making some very savvy moves," says a political analyst who requests anonymity. Serrano's moves

Appearing daily on national television, Serrano has announced a series of moves designed to win popular approval:

* Firing a congress and judiciary believed to be corrupt.

* Donating congressional salaries to local hospitals and backtracking on electricty rate hikes.

* Quickly installing a new President of the Supreme Court and new magistrates.

* In the name of "perfecting" Guatemalan democracy, calling for constitutional reforms to be approved by a national referendum within 90 days, including guidelines for congressional elections at a later date.

* Eliminating the positions of presidential spokesman, secretary of personal affairs, and the secretary of parliamentary affairs to reduce government spending.

Serrano's carefully constructed steps to restore Guatemala to a constitutional democracy are clearly designed to mitigate internal and external pressure.

But how long Serrano can maintain control of the situation is unclear. His latest plan for a referendum was flatly rejected as unconstitutional by Arturo Herbruger, the highly respected president of the government agency that oversees elections.

Secretary-General Joao Clemente Baena Soares of the Organization of American States arrived here Saturday heading a fact-finding mission. The results will be presented on June 3 in Washington.

Mr. Mendez is traveling to the US this week to lobby for sanctions against Guatemala. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu plans a similar campaign abroad.

Although muted here, local opposition groups seem more united than ever. Leaders of Guatemala's most powerful business organization met with Ms. Menchu on May 27 to discuss the current crisis.

The value of Guatemala's currency, the quetzal, has taken a nose dive. The business community fears the loss of international credits and a cutoff in US trade preferences, which give some Guatemalan products duty-free access to the US market.

Guatemalan businessman Jorge Bris sharply condemns Serrano's coup. But as owner of a chain of warehouses here, he questions the use of economic sanctions. "How successful have US sanctions been in the past in other places? Have they delivered democracy to Cuba or Haiti, or have they served to polarize and increase poverty?" Threat of military coup

But more than economic sanctions, Guatemalans fear an imminent military coup. Opposition leaders aren't advocating mass demonstrations against Serrano now. "A public confrontation would be an error," says Helen Mack, a human rights advocate. "It would give the Army an opportunity to come in all their glory to save the democracy."

Defense Minister Jose Domingo Garcia insists the armed forces are completely united behind Serrano.

But one analyst in contact with Army officers says the younger officers, at the rank of Colonel and below, were "not happy with this situation. The top officers directly backing Serrano don't have a large following." But he adds the Army is waiting to see how the public reacts. "The military has a hot potato in its hands and doesn't know how to handle it. It's afraid of being the scapegoat, so it's keeping a low profile now."

The likely outcome, analysts say, is that Serrano pushes ahead with his plan, much as Alberto Fujimori in Peru has done. "The situation may fester for six months. People will get tired and give up the fight. Things will become `normal' under Serrano's terms," says a political analyst.

There are other scenarios being discussed also.

Alvaro Arzu, secretary-general of the PAN and Serrano's former foreign minister, agrees the Guatemala congress and judiciary should be purged, but by constitutional mechanisms. He would like to see a transitional government installed until new elections can be held.

"Serrano's smart. But the reason we're in this situation is that he doesn't listen and he doesn't negotiate like most politicians. If he did, he'd be one of the most successful politicians in the world. But instead of making deals, Serrano fights," says one local political analyst.

Dr. Mario Castejon, a former member of congress, is circulating a proposal similar to the one outlined by Mr. Arzu. He suggests Mr. Herbruger of the Electoral Tribunal would make a good transitional president. But he also implies it is the Army's duty to show Serrano the door and implement the plan.

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