GUATEMALA CITY — In an emotional ceremony before an array of international dignitaries, 43-year-old Vinicio Cerezo was inaugurated Tuesday as the first civilian president of Guatemala in 16 years.
Cerezo, a populist-style Christian Democrat, succeeded Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores as chief of state. Mejia was the third general to rule the country through coups and rigged elections since the late 1970s. Cerezo's presidency is an effort to break more than 30 years of military domination of Guatemalan politics that began with a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1954.
"We are a people who were thrown out of our house and today we are going home," Cerezo said to wild cheers. "We are a people who were denied expression, and many of us were persecuted for telling the truth. Today we have recuperated our voices as citizens."
As Mejia sat impassively in formal military uniform, Cerezo accused the previous government of corruption, incompetence and human rights abuses. He said he is inheriting a country that is virtually bankrupt.
"It is true that we find our country in the worst condition that any chief executive ever has found this nation," he said.
Guatemala is suffering its worst economic crisis since the Depression, with about 50% unemployment, 30% inflation and a $3.5-billion foreign debt. Cerezo has said he needs about $300 million in aid during his first six months in office to keep the country afloat.
Vice President George Bush, who led a U.S. delegation to the inauguration, said before a brief meeting with Cerezo that the United States views the civilian's election "as a turning point, not just in Guatemala's history, but also as a milestone in this hemisphere. . . . We want to be of assistance to President Cerezo . . . as he consolidates democracy."
The Reagan Administration had requested a two-year, $90.9-million military and economic aid package for Guatemala pending the election of a civilian president, but the entire U.S. federal budget is being trimmed and it is unclear how much aid Guatemala will receive now.
Those attending the inauguration included President Belisario Betancur of Colombia, Christian Democratic President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Cerezo has vowed to maintain a neutral position toward Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime, as did the military government before him.
In his inaugural speech, Cerezo made reference to the thousands of Guatemalans who have died or disappeared in political violence during the last decade, in which the army launched a merciless counterinsurgency campaign to wipe out leftist guerrillas.
Deaths and Disappearances
Human rights groups estimate that between 30,000 and 50,000 people have been killed or disappeared here since 1978, most of them at the hands of security forces.
Cerezo already has said he will not lead a drive to prosecute military officials for past human rights abuses as did Argentine President Raul Alfonsin, a civilian who also succeeded military regimes. Amid a last-minute flurry of decrees, the military government approved a general amnesty barring prosecution for political and common crimes committed since March 23, 1982, when Gen. Efrain Rios Montt came to power.
Outside of the National Theater, about 200 members of the Mutual Support Group, the families of those who have disappeared, demonstrated quietly demanding such prosecutions.
"We want the new government and the military dictatorship to understand that for us these things are not in the past. They're the present," said Nineth Garcia, one of the group's leaders.