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Self-Proclaimed President Faces Growing Opposition in Guatemala


GUATEMALA CITY — Political turmoil in Guatemala spread Thursday as self-proclaimed president Gustavo Espina Salguero struggled to solidify his power in the face of mounting opposition and warnings of a violent backlash.

Espina, who served as vice president until declaring that he would replace ousted President Jorge Serrano, a move that clearly enjoyed military backing, spent the day trying to woo congressmen and business leaders who have already rejected his potential presidency as a farce.

In one of his first acts, Espina offered thanks and praise to the army that appeared to have put him in power.

"I want to mention the army with much respect and admiration," he said at a late-night session of Congress. "It is very important for me to say . . . that the army should be neither judged, nor criticized, nor involved in a theme that belongs purely to the political sector. . . . I ask you, people of Guatemala, that we learn to respect our army."

In Washington, the Clinton Administration and the Organization of American States took cautious positions on Guatemala, urging a return to democracy but regarding with uncertainty the latest events.

As part of legal maneuvers to block Espina's ascension to the presidency, Atty. Gen. Edgar Tuna Valladares said his office will attempt to prosecute him for his role in Serrano's decision last week to suspend the constitution. Tuna Valladares was dismissed by Serrano but reinstated Wednesday.

Serrano seized absolute power and ruled by decree for seven days until he was deposed by the army. He fled to El Salvador on Wednesday and was scheduled to travel to Texas.

With their government dangling in political limbo, Guatemalans confirmed what few doubted: It is the military that continues to call the shots.

Defense Minister Gen. Jose Domingo Garcia Samayoa, widely regarded as the most powerful man in the country, declared Espina's presidency a fait accompli, and government television announced that Espina was now in charge.

But Espina failed late Wednesday to muster the congressional support necessary to be sworn into office. Despite long hours spent trying to persuade members of Congress to ratify his presidency, he fell short of the simple majority required under law. Undeterred, he marched to Congress in the middle of the night and announced that he would spend Thursday attempting to forge a consensus to solidify his presidency.

Meanwhile, several thousand students, union activists and peasant organizations took to the streets for the third consecutive day to demand democracy.

The chaos dismayed Guatemalans, especially the business and political leaders who believed that they had cut a deal with the army to oust Serrano on Tuesday and replace him with an agreed-upon independent leader to complete his term. Under the deal, Congress was to choose the new chief executive.

"I feel profoundly defrauded," said Alfonso Cabrera of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, commenting on Espina's assumption of the presidency. "You can legalize this but it would lead to civil war. . . ."

These same groups met with Espina and representatives of the military Thursday in search of agreement over the next steps. But one thing was made clear at the meetings, said participants: Espina is the army's choice.

"The military has set the conditions under which politicians can participate--just participate," said one politician familiar with the talks. "The first condition is that Espina stay in."

Politicians involved in the negotiations said army commanders reneged on the original agreement after a fractious Congress began to debate nominees to replace Serrano. The army men apparently believed that the debate might drag on indefinitely, and they worried that the Congress might settle on a candidate distasteful to them, according to the politicians. Rather than allow the debate to run its course, said these sources, the army chose to promote Espina.

"In Guatemala, opportunity is more important than anything else," said one of the politicians. "You can't just leave a presidency lying around. Someone is going to grab it."

"What we have to do is start all over," said Carlos Avila, 42, and eight-year employee of the Congress. "The whole government, all of them, should resign and we should start all over."

In Washington, foreign ministers of the Organization of American States, meeting in special session, adopted a wait-and-see attitude. The organization took no action for now, limiting itself to expressing support for democracy and condemning Serrano's original attempt to disband Congress and the Supreme Court.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a speech to the OAS, said Washington will not resume its $17-million-a-year aid program to Guatemala until it becomes clear that democracy and constitutional rule have been restored. His comments echoed remarks he made Wednesday, following Serrano's ouster but before the furor over Espina had erupted.

"We remain vigilant and engaged," Christopher said, holding out the possibility of trade and economic sanctions if Guatemala does not restore democracy.

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

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