Behind Guatemala's `Miracle'

RECENT events in Guatemala, where domestic opposition and international pressure thwarted elected President Jorge Serrano Elias's military-backed grab for dictatorial power, suggest that democracy may be more secure in Latin America than anyone had reason to believe.

Yet references to Guatemala's narrow escape from authoritarian rule as the "miracle of Guatemala" imply that these events resulted from unique circumstances, raising doubts about their broader significance.

Calling those events a miracle hardly seems to be an exaggeration. Consider the following:

* The Guatemalan military, long the ultimate arbitrator of politics in the country, was unable to control the course of events.

* Despite Guatemala's bitter ethnic and class divisions, which have fueled a 30-year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, groups across the political and economic spectrum joined to oppose Mr. Serrano's bid, including the business elite, which traditionally allies itself with the Army.

* Guatemala's record as one of the worst violators of human rights in Latin America notwithstanding, its Congress chose the nation's most visible and respected champion of human rights, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, to replace Serrano as president.

All of this would not have occurred without intense external pressure. The United States impressively demonstrated what its soon-to-be announced policy of "assertive multilateralism" might look like: It quickly denounced Serrano's ambitions; demanded that constitutional order be restored; initiated economic sanctions; and joined other governments at the Organization of American States to devise a strategy to deal with the crisis.

Within days of the coup, the OAS secretary-general and several Latin American and Caribbean foreign ministers traveled to Guatemala City to press for its reversal. Neighboring governments in Mexico and Central America responded forcefully on their own, and European nations cut off aid to Guatemala. This sent a powerful signal to the Army and other potential supporters of the coup that Guatemala would become an international pariah unless democratic order was reinstated. More importantly, they emboldened popular opposition to Serrano and stiffened the resolve of the nation's normally timid Congress and Constitutional Court.

Another key factor was the growing importance to Guatemala of international commerce. The reduction of Guatemala's import barriers in recent years and its increasing integration into the world economy has produced a modern business sector dependent on trade and foreign capital. That sector, recognizing the price it would pay for international isolation and the loss of US trade preferences, pressed the Army to reverse the coup.

International action accomplished far less in Peru, where a similar coup by elected President Alberto Fujimori enjoyed broad popular support, or in Haiti, where business groups backed the military takeover. Coup attempts rarely succeed without significant civilian support. This was what was missing in Guatemala.

Washington's decisiveness was due, in part, to the absence of any significant US interests in Guatemala other than preserving democracy; there were no trade-offs to consider. The Guatemalan Army appeared divided and uncertain. And despite the Army's distaste for Mr. de Leon's human rights advocacy, his selection as president was widely accepted because he was a well-known political figure and part of the Guatemalan establishment, not an outsider like Haitian President Aristide.

No miracle returned the rule of law to Guatemala. It was the conviction and courage of Guatemalans, aided by the thoughtful use of power by the US and other nations. And that can surely be repeated elsewhere.

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