GUATEMALA CITY — On the eve of elections to return this country to a civilian president, the streets of the capital roared with bonfires and firecrackers as Guatemalans celebrated the annual "Burning of the Devil," a ritual to exorcise Satan from the path of the Virgin Mary.
Christian Democratic candidate Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, confident that he would win the presidency, spoke fervently that night about ending 31 years of military domination.
"The devil in Guatemala is the past, the inflexible . . . the one who raises ghosts against freedom and democratic participation," Cerezo said. "Today we burn the devil, and tomorrow we inaugurate a new era in Guatemala."
The 43-year-old president-to-be vowed to reform the country's repressive government and to hold together its disintegrating economy. He was bold, elated--cocky, even--in a country where more than 300 of his party activists have been killed for saying less.
But this was the beginning of Cerezo's moment in history, the culmination of 30 years of work for his centrist party and of his career of political participation. The ambitious Cerezo was about to be chosen to replace a despised military in the ornate National Palace but had yet to slip into the quagmire of national problems. It was a virgin hour.
Cerezo won the presidency by a landslide Sunday and is to be inaugurated Jan. 14 for a five-year term. As president, he will immediately be riding something like a razor's edge, trying to manage a number of seemingly irreconcilable forces in a country short on patience.
The economy is in shambles. Cerezo must implement fiscal and monetary reforms likely to anger an ultra-rightist business community that already distrusts the Christian Democrats, whose colleagues in El Salvador nationalized the banks. When the outgoing president, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores, tried to impose tax reforms last April, the business community forced him to repeal them.
Half of the country is out of work or barely scraping by in marginal jobs. Many of those who work earn the equivalent of about $1.50 a day. Unions and unorganized workers, who feared that they would be killed if they made too many demands under military rule, now have high expectations with Cerezo.
A Political Opening
Cerezo's election is taken as a sign that there is a political opening in Guatemala, and the very people who supported him as a symbol of change may well use the opening to strike, demonstrate and demand that the armed forces be held accountable for the thousands of civilians who were killed in the counterinsurgency war against leftist guerrillas.
The tenacious guerrilla movement of an estimated 2,000 rebels is largely contained in the northern highlands now, but it is far from eliminated.
Many of Guatemala's Indians once supported the guerrillas. Sunday, however, many of them voted for Cerezo, although he has not yet proposed a solution for problems such as landlessness that led them to the insurgency in the first place. Half of Guatemala's population is Indian, separated from the Spanish-speaking, Western-attired Guatemalans--who are called Ladinos--by language, racism and exploitation.
Need for U.S. Money
Cerezo also faces growing tensions in the rest of Central America, possibly caught between a military establishmnent that wants to remain neutral and the United States, which may want Guatemala to take a harder line against the leftist regime in Nicaragua.
Although Christian Democratic officials insist that they have no indication of U.S. pressure, Guatemala needs U.S. money, and in the cases of neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica, such aid has coincided with increasing unity against Nicaragua.
While the Guatemalan military has decided to relinquish the presidency to a civilian, it is not known how much power the generals actually will give up.
Cerezo has made it clear that he will not follow Argentine President Raul Alfonsin's example by prosecuting the military for past human rights abuses. It is uncertain how much the armed forces support Cerezo's plan to eliminate military-dominated regional planning committees, disband an Interior Ministry secret police force and reduce the military's abuses.
A Volatile Package
For Cerezo, this package of problems is potentially volatile. If he attempts too many reforms too quickly, he could be ousted by the business community and the military. If he doesn't make enough changes fast enough, he may be abandoned by the poor and middle classes who supported him.
Some Guatemalans say that his election is the last chance for peaceful change in Guatemala and that the fate of the country lies in the hands of an experienced politician with little experience in governing.
Cerezo is the first to admit that this is a critical time, but he says the responsibility is not his alone. He says that his party, which has never held power, will rely on consultation and consensus with the country's various sectors.
Failure or Victory