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Beware the demons loosed by Guatemala's coup.

GUATEMALA CITY -- Unless they are reined in quickly, the antidemocratic demons unleashed by Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano's predawn "selfcoup" May 25 could spread quickly to the rest of Central and Latin America.

Clearly inspired by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's successful selfcoup last year, Serrano's action will be closely watched by military and civilian authorities elsewhere on the continent. If it holds, they easily could see it as an acceptable model for bloodlessly suppressing growing discontent at a time when Latin America is considered one of the hottest economic regions in the world.

Because of its potential spillover effect, Serrano's suspension of key constitutional rights and the dissolution of Congress also confronts the Clinton administration with its first Latin American challenge. "If I were in Washington, I'd be asking myself now, 'How does this look from Mexico City or San Salvador?'" said one longtime U.S. expert on Guatemala.

For analysts struggling to determine why Serrano chose this moment to stage the coup, the answers are several:

* Serrano was facing increasing calls for investigation of his personal finances and accumulation of real estate since he took office two years ago. Like Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Peres and recently impeached Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, Serrano could have found his position imperiled by an unraveling corruption scandal.

* Serrano was under growing pressure from the army to show a strong fist, even as the army was being pressured to negotiate a peace treaty with guerrillas it had defeated militarily. Recent court cases that for the first time found military officers guilty of murdering civilians and mounting opposition in the countryside to forced conscription and service in paramilitary patrols added to the military's discontent.

* Serrano and the military were both stunned by the intensity of resistance to recent decisions to raise electricity prices and issue a national student identity card. In protests last week, thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets in small but provocative antigovernment demonstrations, thereby underscoring a deeper public distrust of Serrano's government.

Serrano is banking on public support for the coup with a cap on electricity prices for the poorest users and pledges to guarantee funds to public hospitals. "We're in favor of him in this path," said Rina Reyes, 45, a maid who makes $45 a month and recently paid $16 for electricity. She expects her post-coup light bills to run under $5.

Citizens unanimously agree with Serrano's condemnation of most congressmen and his frustration with the judicial system -- which he also disbanded. "But did he have to suspend the constitution to do it?" wondered a parking lot attendant uneasily, in a typical reaction. Others responded more fiercely.

"He has betrayed the country because it is he who is supposed to be guaranteeing the norms of the constitution, and here he is suspending them," said high school physics teacher Carlos Gomez, 46, a union activist who was among leaders of the recent antigovernment demonstrations. Suspension of "norms" now permits media censorship, unannounced searches of homes and offices and a ban on political activity, meetings, demonstrations and strikes by government workers.

As he spoke, Gomez waived a government press release accusing him of criminality for his role in protests, a charge that becomes more ominous in the context of the suspension of rights, a telephone death threat and the virtual dissolution of the government's human rights ombudsman's office.

Along with renewed militancy from labor activists like Gomez, recent years also have seen a quiet resurrection of organizing in the Indian-dominated countryside. Now that activism, too, is threatened.

"I fear most for the countryside, for the peasants and their leaders," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu, who has lived the past decade in exile, was in the country attending a summit of international indigenous leaders preparing for a United Nations human rights conference scheduled for Vienna this month. Calling on the international community to "help us keep open the spaces we have gained," Menchu looked shell-shocked as she rushed from one embassy to another seeking security guarantees for her conference delegates.

For Guatemalans and others who follow the country closely, the immediate reason for the coup is less important than the obvious failure, after eight years of civilian rule, of democracy to take root. The causes of the violence that wracked the region in the late 1980s -- some 100,000 have died in Guatemala's 30-year civil war -- have yet to be resolved, despite internationally monitored peace processes and elections of civilian presidents.

"Any democracy which did not attack the inviolability of the military, the extreme differences in distribution of land and increasing -- not decreasing -- economic inequality could not stand up to the test of time," said Canadian historian Jim Handy, who has written widely on the country for 17 years.

While the military has declared it had no part in the coup -- and its presence on the streets, where citizens go about their business much as usual, is minimal -- Ministry of Defense spokesman Captain Albert Yon Rivera made it clear he and others see Serrano's actions as a kind of preemptive strike against those they believe would subvert the democratic process.

"We can speak of this as preventive, not curative medicine, and preventive medicine is cheaper and better," said Yon.
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Author:McConahay, Mary Jo
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 4, 1993
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