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Corruption, not communism, rears as Guatemala democracy's bugaboo.

GUATEMALA CITY -- This country with one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere is suddenly being led by an advocate who has struggled to expose that record to the world. Since Ramiro de Leon Carpio's election by a special session of Congress, Guatemalans from various walks of life have become fond of saying they have their "best and maybe last" chance at real democracy.


De Leon, 51, was the country's attorney general for human rights until swearing his midnight oath of office as president June 5. The event ended 10 days of tumultuous politics and national stress.

The rights advocate replaced Jorge Serrano, the temperamental president who halfway through his five-year term staged a "self-coup," suspending constitutional guarantees and taking dictatorial powers to "fight corruption." It happened in an atmosphere of civic rage, but without bloodshed.

Serrano's power grab met with strong public resistance. Then there was a failed attempt to replace him by a close friend, Vice President Gustavo Espina. The all-powerful army threw its support first behind one civilian then another.

There is profound irony and hope for Latin America in the picture of a man with de Leon's history sitting in the president's seat. For more than four years he headed the government's ombudsman office with 22 provincial branches. The office received complaints, brought court cases and published results of investigations, even when they connected members of security forces to abuse.

On May 25, de Leon escaped dozens of armed police that Serrano sent to his home to arrest him and became a symbol of opposition to the coup.

"He has very much lived 'the situation' of many Guatemalans," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who led public protests. "He is a person who has fought much for human rights."

If there is hope in de Leon's ascent to the national palace, there is also a grave lesson from recent events for him and other politicians: Unless official corruption is controlled, it will undermine Guatemala's fledgling attempts at democracy.

Corruption, not anticommunism or the threat of drug traffic, may become the pretext for coups in the 1990s. It worked for Peru's President Alberto Fujimori, who staged a successful "self-coup" last year that Serrano clearly tried to imitate.

In fact, when Serrano kicked out the congressmen and judges, there was secret or outright approval. The public has been disgusted with their corruption and frustrated with the failure of the court system to provide redress to those who do not threaten or suborn it. With return to law, the same congressmen and judges are back.

Lavish-living Congress President Jose Lobo Dubon, often caricatured as the face of corruption, administered the oath of office to de Leon, which clouded the joy of many watching the ceremony on television.

National press and others close to events say Serrano, top congressmen and the president of the Supreme Court became involved in a web of corruption and bribery involving official slush funds worth tens of millions of dollars, money sometimes spent to influence lawmakers.

When their deals went sour, and the others prepared charges against Serrano so he might fall in the manner of Venezuelan ex-president Carlos Andres Perez, Serrano staged his preemptive strike, dissolving Congress and the courts. It is a story as typical of Latin politics of the past as Serrano's fall may be of new Latin politics.

The new politics are more beholden to international funding, which looks askance at dictatorships. Within hours of the coup, Washington and other world capitals cut aid to put the financial screws on Serrano.

But the new politics is also increasingly answerable to civic coalitions tired of the old ways. An administration, even de Leon's, that tolerates corruption risks disfavor or worse.

"The new president should not confuse forgiveness with the application of justice," said labor leader Byron Morales, during a demonstration outside the national palace.

Flushed with success at helping to topple Serrano, unions, indigenous groups and others are demanding legal charges against civilian and military figures who supported him and calling for a purge of other corrupt politicians. Union leaders are calling for street and workplace demonstrations to make their point. Resistance during the crisis showed citizens were no longer willing to be ruled by a dictator. Now it seems the public considers corruption itself, once presumed to come with political territory, intolerable, too.

Another lesson politicians might take from the coup is the strength of the desire for law and order that exists alongside -- and sometimes threatens to exceed -- the desire for constitutional order. During the crisis, military and police presence cut down on the ordinary crime and violence that has come to terrorize poor urban neighborhoods.

"I didn't mind asking government permission to have a party," said Angelo Boro, a street vendor wearing a threadbare apron. Emergency rules during the coup required that any gathering of more than three persons have a permit from authorities, even a first communion reception like Boro threw in a rundown neighborhood.

"That way the government sends police to watch, which keeps out the bad people who make trouble, and that is my dream," Boro said.

The effort to bring down Serrano changed the face of the country in an important way: It united bickering social groups in a common cause -- the restoration of the constitution. In a typical meeting that would have been unthinkable before the coup, for instance, four leaders of the organized private businessmen's sector, known by its initials CACIF, sat across the table from Rigoberta Menchu, long considered by conservatives a spokeswoman for their ideological enemies.

In another surprising twist, the army emerged as a kind of passive guarantor of democracy by standing back from overt support of Serrano, and then of Espina, when each lost popular and legal backing.

The leftist guerrillas of the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity, meanwhile, who have fought Latin America's longest-running insurgency, looked politically redundant as the civilian groups struggled to build their consensus. The future of two-year-old peace talks is not clear. Just before the coup, Zacapa Bishop Rudolfo Quezada Toruno, who has been moderating the peace negotiations, joined other bishops in declaring the Mexico-based negotiations at a "dead point" because of inflexibility on both sides.

Much of the future of the most populous (9.5 million) country in Central America will depend on how the civic consensus sees the basic issue, as one businessman put it, "of what this country should be all about." It will not be easy.

There is a brutal army, more than 100,000 strong and still the nation's most powerful institution, despite the recent strengthening of democracy. And the gap between the "very poor" (more than 80 percent of the population, according to the government's own figures) and the rest of the population grows wider, not narrower, each year.

The Indian majority provides the labor that makes Guatemala a regional breadbasket, but little has trickled down to it from Central America's largest economy.

De Leon has made a good start. He is the first president in 40 years to call a war on poverty a "national goal." He replaced the minister of defense, who initially stood by Serrano, and named Gen. Otto Perez to the key position of commander of the Presidential Guard. Perez opposed the coup and pushed the return to constitutional order.

De Leon pledged a mechanism of "permanent dialogue" with Indian groups and designated health and education as human rights.

"I ask for the Lord's illumination to be able to convert myself into a statesman," he said, implying that no mere president could meet the challenges of the days ahead.
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Author:McConahay, Mary Jo
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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