Unexpected Progress in Guatemala

June 11, 1993

The surprise elevation of Ramiro de Leon Carpio to president gives Guatemala its best chance of national reconciliation to end its permanent civil war. The turn of events earned -- and received -- resumption of U.S. aid, which is peanuts but of symbolic value.

The coup, counter-coup and reverse-counter-coup in that tiny country resemble the recent power struggle in mighty Russia in one important respect. All sorts of power figures made their moves, and found they had less power than they thought, and that the democracy to which they gave lip service was more deeply ingrained in the people than they suspected.

The events began on May 25 when, after weeks of protest against his austerity policies, the elected President Jorge Serrano Elias suspended congress and the constitutional court and announced his personal takeover. Mr. de Leon Carpio, who was the congressionally chosen "attorney general for human rights," barely eluded military arrest.

The people objected. So did foreign governments. Aid stopped. The military lost nerve. Mr. Serrano was ousted. Vice President ,, Gustavo Espina Salguero was elevated on an interim basis until the congress could pick a president to fill the unexpired term until 1996. But Mr. Espina said no dice, he would keep the office until 1996 with the army's support. The people objected. The once-hunted Guatemalan Indian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Rigoberta Menchu, objected. Congress could not muster a quorum to do the deed. Nobody was president.

Then, on Sunday, the congress did meet and elected its human rights ombudsman, Mr. de Leon Carpio, who had actually prosecuted army officers for human rights abuses, to be president until 1996. In the middle of proceedings a telephone rang in the chamber and a voice said that the army accepted the choice. Not only were Mr. Serrano (now in exile in Panama) and Mr. Espina out, but in his first action as president, Mr. de Leon Carpio shuffled the high command and ousted the defense minister.

Mr. de Leon Carpio takes office with unusual legitimacy and widespread goodwill at home and abroad. His assignment is to bring national reconciliation and integrate the large Indian population into national life before handing over to an elected president. In this effort, he deserves every support that Washington can provide.

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