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.