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Television Reviews : 'Under the Gun: Democracy in Guatemala'

February 17, 1988|BILL STEIGERWALD

Guatemala, which usually gets lost in the grim and seemingly insoluble scuffle of Central American politics, ended 32 years of bloody military rule in 1986 when it freely elected a civilian president.

But as "Under the Gun: Democracy in Guatemala" makes depressingly clear tonight (10 p.m., Channel 50; 10:30 p.m., Channel 28), the tiny country of 8 1/2 million mostly Mayan Indians is still crippled by terrible political and socioeconomic problems.

Producers Robert Richter and Patricia Goudvis supply a lot of valuable information about this little-known country and its beautiful people. They also present a great deal of damning evidence that, despite Guatemala's move to democracy, little has changed under the current administration of President Vinicio Cerezo.

Many credible critics--from archbishops to guerrilla resistance leaders--charge that Guatemala is democratic in name only. They claim that Cerezo has not reined in the military, has not put an end to human-rights abuses, has not made essential land reforms and has not punished those responsible for the murders, kidnappings and corruption of the past (human rights groups blame Guatemalan military regimes with 100,000 deaths and 40,000 disappearances since 1954).

Cerezo and the military get plenty of interview time to defend themselves, though their arguments often ring hollow or are later discredited.

The film makers' sympathies plainly lie with the poor peasants and rural Indian populations who have been oppressed for so long by their own government. But suspiciously, they provide little scrutiny or information about the leftist guerrillas fighting in the mountains or what they stand for.

It may be naive of the film makers to expect that a military that ruled so long and so absolutely would so quickly hand over all its power to a newly democratic government. And though it remains to be seen whether the fragile democratic regime of Cerezo will survive to enact the much-needed and much-hoped-for reforms, the makers of "Under the Gun" offer proof that today's Guatemala--though improved--still has a long way to go before it can pass the test of a true democracy.

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