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Guatemala in Turmoil as Presidency Deal Unravels : Central America: New leader insists he's not temporary. Nobel laureate urges army to step aside.


GUATEMALA CITY — As deposed President Jorge Serrano abandoned Guatemala, the man named by the army as a temporary replacement stunned the nation Wednesday by declaring that he intends to remain in office.

Vice President Gustavo Espina Salguero's announcement plunged Guatemala into yet another political crisis over who was in charge, amid clear signs that a fragile plan designed to restore constitutional rule was crumbling. The Congress also appeared to be backing off from a promise to purge its most corrupt members.

Defense Minister Gen. Jose Domingo Garcia Samayoa, who appeared at Espina's home after he proclaimed himself president, gave his backing to Espina, saying his presidency was a "done deal."

With the plan faltering, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu increased her demands that the military step aside once and for all and pledged to turn up pressure through street demonstrations.

A crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 demonstrators outside the national palace shouted their objections to Espina. "Espina to the wall (firing squad)," they chanted. "Civilians, yes; military, no. Civilians, yes; Espina, no."

The military ousted Serrano from office Tuesday, a week after the president had seized authoritarian powers, suspended the constitution and dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court.

Serrano left the country Wednesday for neighboring El Salvador and was expected to travel to San Antonio as early as today to visit his ailing mother. A U.S. official said the Clinton Administration had sent word to the deposed president that he would be welcome in the United States, at least for a while, to make sure he left Guatemala.

As part of a deal brokered by army commanders and business executives to remove Serrano and restore a civilian government, Vice President Espina was to assume the presidency temporarily while the Congress reconvened to name a new chief executive. Garcia Samayoa, who announced the plan, said Espina had already offered his resignation and would step down as soon as the president was chosen.

Also as part of the plan, Garcia Samayoa said, Congress would conduct a purge of its own most corrupt members.

Scarcely 24 hours after the agreement was reached, it was a shambles, and the business and political leaders involved in brokering the deal accused the military of betraying them.

"We were cheated," said opposition politician Alvaro Arzu.

"There is a power vacuum right now," said Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, Ramiro De Leon Carpio. "Society is on the edge of social explosion if this is not cleared up."

Espina summoned reporters to his home and declared he had assumed the presidency and did not intend to resign.

"Today, I speak to you as the new president of Guatemala," Espina said in the televised news conference. "I never resigned. Never. My hand, my pen, never graced a resignation."

After their meeting, Garcia Samayoa indicated that it had been a "mistake" to announce Espina's resignation.

Espina suggested his presidency has been recognized by other countries and warned that efforts to find another way back to constitutional rule could lead to violence.

Espina may have been taking his cue from the disarray evident at the Congress on Wednesday, its first day back in session after Serrano dissolved it last week.

The 116-seat Parliament has been largely discredited because of a number of corrupt members. Its purge was seen as a key element of the plan agreed to by the army, business leaders and politicians negotiating Serrano's removal.

But Wednesday, numerous legislators were finding legal reasons that a purge could not be carried out. "There is no one clean enough to throw the first stone," said Congressman Miguel Montepeque.

Congress was to have chosen a new president by Saturday, but Espina's declaration seemed to preempt that process. Many Guatemalans saw the naming of an independent statesman with international credibility as the best way to put Guatemala back on the road to democracy.

"There is strong opposition to having Espina there," said a former government official involved with negotiations to end the crisis. "He is clearly as responsible as Serrano for undermining constitutional rule."

The Constitutional Court had been expected to send a list of presidential candidates to Congress by today, and legislators were to have chosen the man to head the government until Jan. 14, 1996, when Serrano's five-year term was to end. Espina said Wednesday that he would serve out Serrano's term.

The Clinton Administration hailed Serrano's ouster and suggested that Washington hastened his downfall by suspending foreign aid and by exerting pressure through the Organization of American States and other bodies.

"There seems to be some progress toward the restoration of democracy there," Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters before Espina's announcement. " . . . We'll not be prepared to resume our aid relationship until we have full assurance of the restoration of democracy in Guatemala."

Times staff writer Norman Kempster, in Washington, contributed to this report.

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