Guatemala Finds Its Way Back to Democratic Rule

A human rights ombudsman who was an ardent critic of government abuses has been elected president by the nation's Congress

IN the space of less than two weeks, Guatemala has careened from a fledgling democracy to dictatorship and seen an aborted grab for power by an ambitious vice president with military backing. But now the Central American nation appears back on a constitutional track.

Late Saturday night, fire crackers were lit in the capital city as Guatemalans celebrated a return to democratic rule. Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, was elected by congressional ballot to fulfill the term of ousted President Jorge Serrano Elias.

"We have suffered a grave national crisis, but this country can move forward," Mr. de Leon told reporters after his election. "I intend to govern in consultation with all sectors of the society."

Local polls show De Leon, a lawyer, is a popular choice. As the congressionally appointed human rights ombudsman since 1988, De Leon has been a champion of Guatemalan Indians and other groups seeking redress from persecution.

Guatemala is suffering from a 32-year-old civil war and one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere.

Despite death threats, De Leon has been an ardent critic of rights abuses by Guatemalan security forces. Before President Serrano was deposed, the 51-year-old ombudsman did not hesitate to take legal action against Serrano's policies for perceived violations of human rights.

"De Leon is a populist and he'll run a populist government," says Guatemalan political scientist Armando de la Torre. "He used the human rights post as a trampoline to further his political career."

Indeed, De Leon made no secret of his presidential ambitions. When Serrano seized near-dictatorial control in the early morning hours of May 25, he correctly judged that De Leon would be a threat. Serrano attempted to put De Leon under house arrest. But the former ombudsman escaped and played a leading role in rallying opposition to Serrano's coup.

When Serrano was deposed on June 1, Vice President Gustavo Espina Salguero attempted to claim the presidential mantle. But Guatemalan lawmakers refused to approve him. The Constitutional Court ruled on Friday that Mr. Espina was ineligible because he supported Serrano's illegal coup. The court gave the Guatemalan Congress 24 hours to elect a new president.

In the first round of congressional voting Saturday night, De Leon received 64 votes. His rival, Arturo Herbruger Asturias, got 51 votes. But Mr. Herbruger, the highly respected 81-year-old president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, withdrew his name and threw his support behind De Leon.

A key to De Leon's congressional victory was the backing of the conservative National Advancement Party (PAN). "The PAN thinks its chances are better in the 1995 presidential elections if Ramiro de Leon Carpio isn't in the race," Mr. De la Torre says. Under current law, De la Torre says, De Leon won't be able to run again for president after fulfilling the last two-and-a-half years of Serrano's term.

Although the question of who will be president of Guatemala now appears settled, there are many more doubts hanging over this nation of 10 million people.

For example, will the Congress now be purged of corrupt members as has been broadly demanded? How will De Leon be received by the still powerful military? Will the new president attempt to reform the institution he so aggressively criticized as ombudsman? Will the security forces cooperate? What implications might this relationship have for the stalled peace talks with leftist insurgents?

What will happen to Serrano? The ousted president fled to El Salvador on Wednesday. He has been offered asylum by the president of Honduras. It is rumored he may fly to Texas to visit his mother.

But a Guatemalan judge has ordered the foreign ministry to begin extradition proceedings to bring Serrano back to stand trial on charges of usurping the Constitution.

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