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Cerezo, Guatemala's New Leader, Sees Duarte as an Object Lesson

January 12, 1986|George Black | George Black , editor of NACLA Report on the Americas, published by the North American Congress on Latin America, made extended visits to Guatemala and El Salvador during the last three months.

NEW YORK — On Tuesday, Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo will be inaugurated as the new civilian president of Guatemala.

Cerezo has raised hopes that a new democratic era may now be dawning in a country that has been run by the military for more than 30 years. His victory has also been widely hailed as further proof that Christian Democracy, long driven underground by generals who equated it with communism, will now emerge as the democratic wave of Central America's future.

Cerezo won a sweeping mandate, taking more than 68% of the vote after fending off a spiteful campaign by his opponent, right-wing newspaper owner Jorge Carpio Nicolle.

In a series of lurid television ads before the vote, and an equally vindictive set of editorials afterward in his newspaper, El Grafico, Carpio warned Guatemalans that the "internationalist doctrine" of Christian Democracy would submerge Guatemala in the same chaos and violence as neighboring El Salvador.

Carpio's paper was outraged when, within days of his victory, Cerezo embarked on a highly publicized whistle-stop tour of Central American capitals. His first stop was San Salvador, where he met with his Christian Democratic counterpart, Jose Napoleon Duarte. The contrasts of style and substance between the two leaders offer some interesting pointers to Cerezo's chances of consolidating Guatemala's much-vaunted democratic opportunity.

The visual differences between the two men might have been designed by Central Casting. Duarte has now held the presidency for more than 18 months, and has aged visibly in that time. His suits seem more crumpled, the bags under his eyes deeper and darker. Cerezo, almost 20 years younger, appeared sleek and handsome at their joint press conference, with a definite spring in his step.

"Duarte's experience has taught me many things," Cerezo said in an interview. "He's been quite skillful in making deals with the armed forces, but he's also had to make concessions. When Duarte took power he was up against a battle on three fronts: against the guerrillas, the army and the private sector. And the war was close to being lost. In that kind of situation, who knows what you can do. But my situation is completely different."

He must confront a recalcitrant private sector, to which phrases like tax reform and agrarian reform are anathema, and which is not averse to calling in the death squads to protect its privileges. Cerezo himself has survived three of their attacks.

Even Cerezo's own Christian Democratic Party is to the right of the new president: "This will be a centrist government in the sense that Vinicio is a liberal and the rest of the party are conservatives," remarked one experienced local commentator. But Cerezo was the only leader whom the party found, in the Spanish word, presidenciable .

Cerezo's main restraint, however, comes from an army that has grown accustomed to the habits of omnipotence. The recent elections, Cerezo acknowledged, "were not a gracious concession on the part of the military." In fact, they were the culmination of a three-stage strategy that the army embarked on four years ago.

The first stage was a dirty war to rid Guatemala of "communist subversion." The second was to build a sweeping network of agencies and bureaucracies, including dozens of model villages and so-called "development poles," which have given the army carte blanche in the Indian countryside. The third was described candidly by the powerful army chief of staff, Gen. Rodolfo Lobos Zamora, as a plan to hold "elections with a massive turnout" and to secure the foreign aid "which might help Guatemala to defeat subversion."

Cerezo is fully aware that these are the terms of his presidency. Journalists repeatedly put the same questions to him: Will he embark on a barnstorming first 100 days like Peruvian President Alan Garcia? Will he follow in the footsteps of Argentina's Raul Alfonsin and put senior military officers on trial for past human-rights abuses? He answers patiently that this is out of the question: "The Guatemalan army is not an army in defeat like in Argentina. If I put army officers on trial, I'd be committing suicide."

Yet Cerezo still talks in terms of using what little space he has to carve out a little more, and eventually to have enough to enact the social and economic reforms that he has preached for years. That is language that his Salvadoran opposite number, Duarte, rarely uses these days. Duarte's election promises of reform have faded into the background; in their place is the conviction that everything takes second place to the needs of the war against the guerrillas.

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