Guatemalans Disillusioned By President's Record

De Leon has negotiated deal with rebels, but failures on reform and labor unrest sap support

HUMAN rights advocate Ramiro de Leon Carpio took office determined to end the atrocities and instability that have haunted Guatemala for decades.

But as his first year as president comes to an end, Mr. De Leon and his government are on the verge of collapse, observers say. Even his staunchist supporters have abandoned him, following a year marked by political killings, attacks on foreigners, coup rumors, and a lengthy public-sector strike.

``He is extremely weak right now,'' says ex-Defense Minister Gen. Hector Gramajo. ``We are used to crisis in Guatemala.... But we may be heading for chaos.''

Much more was expected of De Leon when he catapulted to power June 6, 1993, following a failed ``coup'' by former President Jorge Serrano Elias. Mr. Serrano had tried May 25 to dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court to make himself dictator, claiming political and judicial corruption made Guatemala ungovernable.

But he was forced into exile when the military, business leaders, trade unions, and rights groups joined forces, leaving him isolated and unable to rule.

For a country run by military dictatorships for the past 40 years, Serrano's ouster was a crucial step for democracy. Even more promising was the election - by Congress - of De Leon. The outspoken lawyer had been one of Guatemala's most vocal critics, working for a time as the government's human rights ombudsman, exposing human rights abuses committed by the military that have made Guatemala one of the bloodiest countries in Latin America. As many as 150,000 people, mostly civilian Mayan Indians, have been killed or have disappeared during the region's only remaining civil war.

But De Les honeymoon in power was brief, says Gabriel Aguliera, political analyst at the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences here. He had no political party to back him and he was forced - like his predecessors - to align himself with the military.

His attempts to purge the Congress of corrupt members failed when they refused to step down. And his much-publicized attempt at electoral and judicial reform was a disaster. A January referendum to amend the Constitution - in response to public demand for government accountability - garnered a voter turnout of only 15 percent, a critical blow to De Les credibility.

De Leon lost government workers' support when he rejected their request for 40-percent wage increases on $35-a-week salaries. ``De Leon had so much support from the people. We thought he would be different. Now, no one is with him,'' says Xavier Gonzalez, one of 200,000 public sector workers on strike for almost three months this year.

As De Les term wears on, his problems mount, and the violence increases. Last month, Epaminondas Gonzalez, president of Guatemala's Constitutional Court, was killed outside his home by unidentified gunmen. A week later, congressional deputy Obdulio Chinchilla was seriously injured by a sniper. Former President Vinicio Cerezo says the military in Guatemala is encouraging the violence to create instability, paving the way for a coup.

``The coup rumors have been constant,'' says a Western diplomat.

Hysteria is also growing over rumors of child snatching. Foreigners have been attacked by club- and machete-wielding mobs convinced babies are being stolen for international adoption or organ transplants. There is no evidence of kidnapping. In April, De Leon considered a state of emergency to end the violence but never called for one.

De Leon has even been attacked for his human rights record. Human rights abuses - including executions, assassi- nations, and torture - rose 54 percent in 1993, compared with the previous year, according to a report from the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights, which monitors human rights abuses. ``Contrary to what all the people thought, things have gotten worse under De Leon,'' says Fernando Lopez, spokesman for that group.

De Les one major success in office has been with the guerrillas in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. After three years of negotiations, the government and the rebels agreed to a human rights accord in March, which could bring an end to the 34-year civil war. A cease-fire begins in September, and the United Nations is setting up a permanent mission to monitor the accord's implementation.

Negotiators are expected to meet in Oslo, Norway, on June 12-18 to discuss a proposal to create a Truth Commission.

Nineth Montenegro, head of a group representing families of ``the disappeared,'' says the Truth Commission is vital to Guatemalan peace. ``It's not so much to punish,'' she says, ``but so the people can know the truth. So the victims can find moral justice.''

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