Guatemalan Avoids Predecessor's Shadow

In a country where 80 percent live in poverty, a `nonpolitical' president vows to fight ostentation, corruption, and arrogance

IN the days before leaving for the Ibero-American presidential summit, which begins today in Brazil, Guatemala's new president took pains to portray himself as a reluctant traveler.

First, Ramiro de Leon Carpio hinted he "might" go. Then, ceding to calls from 10 presidents, he announced his intention to go and seek support for a new peace plan to ease this country's civil war. But President De Leon explained the trip would be limited to "perhaps a total of four or five people." And they would travel by commercial aircraft, not by private jet.

In a country where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, De Leon wants to rid his office of ostentation, arrogance, and corruption. In short, he doesn't want to make the mistake of his predecessor, Jorge Serrano Elias.

Mr. Serrano fled the country after an attempt to establish dictatorial rule on May 25. De Leon, Guatemala's former human rights ombudsman, was elected on June 5 by the Guatemalan Congress to serve the remaining 2 1/2 years of Serrano's term.

"We want to generate a new style of governing," said De Leon in a June 20 speech outlining a six-month plan to combat poverty and promote human rights. "Honesty, austerity, and transparency are this government's line of thought."

In his first month in office, De Leon has sought to distance himself from Mr. Serrano by launching a new peace initiative, putting moderates into the military high command, eliminating perks in the executive branch, and inviting dialogue with all parts of Guatemalan society.

Not a bad start for a president with no political party of his own, no election campaign, and no time to develop a policy platform before taking office, some analysts say. But impatience is growing, even among supporters.

"This is a historic moment, and he has already lost the initiative," says a prominent businessman. "He's dragging his feet on choosing a Cabinet, and the quality of the choices so far is mediocre at best." After the euphoria

High expectations followed De Leon into office. Guatemalans were euphoric over their successful rejection of Serrano's military-backed coup. But analysts say two lingering problems are bringing public expectations back to earth: lack of security and corruption in the legislative and judicial branches.

"Two-thirds of the state is still occupied by people who brought disgrace upon the country," says Dionisio Gutierrez, a businessman and talk show host. "We have to seize the moment and purge the Congress now."

A significant number of the 116 legislators are accused of taking bribes from Serrano and corporate interests to pass certain bills. On July 13, a small protest march was held in the capital to pressure corrupt officials to step down. Despite the clamor to purge the government, it is not clear how it can be done.

A coalition of business, labor, political, and academic organizations known as the Instancia Nacional de Consejo (INC), which was born during the coup attempt, asked for the resignation of all members of Congress so a new election could be held. But only 63 lawmakers responded by turning in their resignations to the INC. New elections can only be held if all legislators resign.

"The most honest are resigning, but the most corrupt are not. So what you have left are the most unsavory characters," notes political scientist Armando de la Torre.

Under the Constitution, the president or the Congress could call for a referendum on the issue. "Even if the people say yes, let's purge the Congress, you still are left with the question of how to do it legally," notes former defense minister Hector Garamajo.

Mr. Garamajo suggests De Leon sidestep the purge problem. "We could get by for 2 1/2 years with Congress like this. There are more important goals like combating poverty and providing basic infrastructure."

Frank La Rue, director of the Guatemala Center for Legal Action on Human Rights, agrees that Congress is not a priority. But Mr. La Rue says the president cannot sidestep the issue of public security.

The point was driven home by the July 3 murder of Jorge Carpio, leader of the Union of the National Center party. Carpio, a cousin of De Leon, and three others were shot by highway bandits after a campaign stop in a village outside of Guatemala City, according to official reports.

A dozen suspects have been arrested. A gang of thieves apparently has been operating in this area for years. But some members of Congress are questioning if the motive was criminal or political. Test case

"Either way, the consequences for De Leon are the same," La Rue says.

He adds: "This is a test case which is crucial to his credibility. In a military society where the Army is looking for guerrillas, you would think they would stop a group of 15 to 20 individuals and ask them where they got their weapons.... This band has connections to security forces. De Leon has to find out not only who the thieves and murderers were but who were their protectors and prosecute them. If he can't, he should resign."

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