Step Backward in Guatemala

June 01, 1993

For every two steps forward to democracy in Latin America, something like the coup by President Jorge Serrano Elias of Guatemala is an unhappy step backward.

He suspended the leading organs of government, clapped key people under house arrest, slapped censorship on the media and sent the military police around to discourage protest. It was like the coup in April of last year by President Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru.

Mr. Serrano's crackdown might have forestalled one by the military, say his defenders. More likely, the two are the same thing.

Mr. Serrano was chief civilian aide to the last military dictator in the early 1980s. He was the surprise winner of the 1990 election, and the first elected president to succeed an elected president in Guatemala's history.

Lately, his negotiations with leftist guerrillas, who have been in rebellion since 1960, have gone nowhere. The U.S. embassy denounced the impugnity that military assassins appeared to enjoy when bumping off dissidents. The occasion for his coup was a spate of street demonstrations against higher prices that flowed from his austerity measures.

The Serrano coup was called "illegitimate" by the White House and a "step backward for the peace process," by Guatemalan dissident and Nobel peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu. Not often have those two agreed. The Constitutional Court of Guatemala ruled the coup illegal, which won't stop Mr. Serrano from writing a new constitution.

With luck, a fact-finding weekend mission by the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Joao Baena Soares, will start a movement to restore the rule of law. More likely, it won't. One thing Mr. Serrano knows is that the Fujimori coup, however embarrassing to Americas leaders, is popular in Peru.

Regression is seen in Nicaragua and El Salvador as well. Latin America is still in the grip of a very large fundamental movement toward democracy. But many obstacles rear up along the way.

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