GUATEMALAN President Jorge Serrano Elias's suspension of constitutional rule gave President Clinton and Latin American leaders an opportunity to show that united opposition against threats to democracy can succeed. They forced the reinstatement of constitutional rule in Guatemala, setting an example for Europe and the rest of the world.
Mr. Serrano and his apologists would have had us believe he was acting to save Central America's largest country from corruption, chaos, and communism. But what he did by dissolving Congress and the courts was return power to the same cast of characters that gave Guatemala grinding poverty and the worst human-rights record in the Americas.
Serrano would have been president, but Guatemala would again have been in the hands of the armed forces and their wealthy supporters. The military and the elite have prospered while most Guatemalans live in poverty.
The American community of nations, led by the US and working through the Organization of American States, reacted immediately by insisting on a return to full constitutional rule, with Serrano stepping aside if he could not abide by the rules that brought him to office.
This condemnation, backed by the threat of economic sanctions that would have suspended foreign aid to Guatemala and cut it off from external markets, empowered Serrano's domestic opponents and ultimately turned the armed forces against him.
Yet, the danger to democracy isn't over. The armed forces have not hesitated to use violence to perpetuate political dominance and socioeconomic privilege. Their current reign dates from 1954, when an invasion by armed exiles, supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, overthrew a leftist-leaning elected government.
In the years since, the armed forces have met every challenge - be it from leftist guerrillas, peaceful trade unionists, or highland Indians (40 percent of Guatemala's 9.5 million people) - with ruthless force. More than 150,000 Guatemalans have died in the violence.
The 1992 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Guatemalan Indian Rigoberta Menchu for her human-rights efforts in the face of government repression. Ms. Menchu's mother, father, and brother were all murdered by government security forces.For thousands of Guatemalans the only way to escape from the terror and poverty of their country has been to leave. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Guatemalans live in the US, and 200,000 in Mexico.
IN the last decade those who control Guatemala have begun to make grudging concessions in response to the democracy and peaceful reconciliation sweeping Latin America. Free and fair elections were held in 1985, and the winner served out his term.
Serrano took the same route to office in 1991. The Central American peace accords provided a framework, as well as external pressure, for the government and the guerrillas to enter into negotiations to end armed confrontation. Through an arrangement brokered by the United Nations, refugees recently began to return home.
Serrano's "self coup" has thrown all of this and more into doubt. Taking a page from Peruvian Alberto Fujimori's manual, Serrano justified his actions in terms of saving the nation from self-destruction and promised to return Guatemala to constitutional rule in 60 days. But Guatemalans and outside observers were justifiably skeptical. The Peruvians are still waiting more than a year after Fujimori declared himself dictator and made the same promises.
Given the military's history of intervention in politics, the inter-American community would be well-advised to keep the pressure up until power is fully in civilian hands. It must also help strengthen democratic institutions in Guatemala. There is no question that decisive action by Washington and its allies in the hemisphere was instrumental in reversing the threat to democracy in Guatemala. Serrano gave Mr. Clinton a foreign policy victory that extends beyond Guatemala to the rest of the hemisphere an d to Europe, where collective action is desperately needed.