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The Wrong Kind of Assistance

May 17, 1987

President Reagan said some nice things about peace and democracy in Central America during the recent visit to Washington by Guatemala's President Vinicio Cerezo. As before, however, he chose the wrong way to show his commitment to those worthy goals--offering Cerezo military aid instead of the civilian economic assistance that Guatemala really needs.

The first Guatemalan president to visit the United States since 1882, Cerezo is a pivotal figure not just in his own country's history, but potentially for the rest of Central America. He is the first civilian to wear Guatemala's presidential sash since a military coup, inspired by the Central Intelligence Agency, overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.

That coup began a long period of brutal repression in Guatemala, a dark era from which the nation is only now starting to emerge. During that time Guatemala's army, a coldly efficient fighting force, twice defeated guerrilla uprisings, killing thousands of innocent peasants in its zeal. Right-wing death squads were also notorious in targeting activists suspected of leftist sympathies--labor leaders, priests and nuns, doctors, teachers and even liberal politicians like Cerezo, a Christian Democrat.

Cerezo had survived no less than three assassination attempts when he was elected president in late 1985, so it is no surprise that since his inauguration he has moved carefully to rein in the Guatemalan military. But while reports of repression are down dramatically, Cerezo is still being criticized by human-rights groups for not pushing his government to file criminal charges against military officers suspected of exceeding their authority. That situation poses a very delicate and dangerous dilemma for Cerezo, for while he and other civilians have moral authority in Guatemala, the military still has power. That is why the last thing the United States should be doing now is aiding the Guatemalan military.

Guatemala has received only scant military aid from the United States in the last decade. It was rejected in a huff in 1977 when the Carter Administration criticized the army's abysmal human-rights record, and renewed at a minimal level by Reagan last year. During the Cerezo visit, U.S. officials said Reagan would look favorably on a request for more military aid and is prepared to send Guatemala $5 million worth next year--a strange way, indeed, to support a fragile civilian government. More than military aid, Cerezo needs investment and other forms of economic help to revive his country's economy. The Administration is not blind to this. To Reagan's credit, economic aid for Guatemala has increased from $27 million in 1984 to $115 million this year. But yet another increase like that is the best investment the United States could make in continued civilian rule, and stability, in Guatemala.

It would also help if Reagan heeded Cerezo's advice on how to deal with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Cerezo opposes U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, and instead is seeking a diplomatic settlement to the fighting in Central America. He calls this position "active neutrality," and has invited other Central American presidents, including Daniel Ortega, to meet in Esquipulas, Guatemala, at the end of June to discuss peace proposals.

While insisting that he still must support the contras, Reagan told Cerezo during his visit that the United States will cooperate "in any process" that brings democracy to Nicaragua.

That should include peace talks like those planned for Esquipulas, so Reagan must be true to his word. There is no guarantee Cerezo will succeed in bringing peace to Central America, but his failure is assured if the United States uses its power and influence to interfere with his peacemaking efforts.

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