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New Guatemala Leader Faces Demands to Quit : Latin America: Broad-based coalition clamors for president's resignation. Group warns of civil war if he does not.

June 05, 1993|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUATEMALA CITY — In an open challenge to the army, a broad and angry coalition of business leaders, union activists and politicians is insisting that this nation's self-proclaimed president resign, group members said Friday.

The demand is the latest in a growing campaign aimed at preventing military-backed Gustavo Espina Salguero from replacing President Jorge Serrano, who was ousted Tuesday in an army-engineered coup after he staged a constitutional coup a week earlier.

The Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Serrano on Friday and sought his extradition from El Salvador, where he fled Wednesday, the attorney general's office said. A similar legal complaint against Espina is pending.

Espina, who had served as vice president in Serrano's government, proclaimed himself president with the backing of the army's high command but has failed to muster the congressional support necessary to be sworn into office. Congressional leader Jose Fernando Lobo Dubon, in another act of defiance, announced he would summon legislators to vote for a new president today.

Students, labor, indigenous groups and, now, business leaders oppose Espina's presidency, seen by many as a front for military control.

"His only option is to resign," said Peter Lamport, a banking executive and leader of an umbrella of business organizations.

By rejecting Espina, the coalition of business and political leaders is asking the army to withdraw its support. After arduous negotiations, including a three-hour meeting with Espina, the coalition decided that the would-be president is as guilty as Serrano for undermining the constitution, sources involved in the talks said.

"This is the entire nation (speaking)," said a business leader involved in the talks. "The army has no choice. They have to do what this (coalition) says, or there will be civil war."

Defense Minister Jose Domingo Garcia Samayoa, who publicly endorsed the Espina presidency, abruptly canceled a news conference Friday morning; there was no immediate response from the army.

The coalition represents a broad spectrum of Guatemalan society, including the powerful business elite who essentially control the national economy and the unions that can mobilize street demonstrations.

It was pressure from the business elite, in combination with threats of international isolation and economic sanctions, that finally persuaded the army to oust Serrano after he seized absolute power and suspended the constitution May 25.

"The military cannot ignore the streets," said legislator Jorge Carpio of the opposition Union of the National Center party, who also participated in the talks. "The military cannot ignore all of these sectors."

So far, Espina has held tough. He told a local television station that he would consolidate his presidency and accused opponents of trying to manipulate the army for their own political gain. "Tiny little groups are trying to soil and manipulate the armed institution," he told the station by telephone.

Although its behind-the-scenes role is thought to continue to be strong, the military sought late Thursday to distance itself publicly from what has become a confusing spectacle of deal-cutting and disarray.

"The political game allowed by the democratic system is the responsibility of the political sector," Navy Capt. Julio Alberto Yon, the military spokesman, said at a news conference. "At no moment does the army intend to exercise power in the country."

Speculation about divisions within the military was fueled by the appearance this week of two clandestine communiques from groups claiming to represent disaffected segments of the officer corps.

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