Election in Guatemala

Articles in The Times, an editorial (Dec. 10), and on-the-spot news coverage convey cautious optimism about the election of a civilian president in Guatemala, but a powerful military infrastructure and the readiness of the Reagan Administration to escalate military aid weigh heavily on the side of caution.

The key issue of the Guatemalan elections is not, as Jeane Kirkpatrick argues (Editorial Pages, Dec. 1), how "free and fair" they were. High turnout is not surprising where fines (or worse) face non-voters. And however procedurally correct the voting, half the political spectrum remains unrepresented, for to be left of center in Guatemala invites assassination.

The real question, as recognized by Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) in his article (Editorial Pages, Nov. 29) and in the fresh and insightful reports of The Times' Marjorie Miller, is whether elections will produce the critical changes needed to re-establish the democracy that was tragically erased by the CIA-sponsored coup in 1954. In fact, the biggest obstacle facing the new president, the Inter-Institutional Coordination System, is written into the new constitution. This gives the military control over economic development programs (and thus foreign aid), telecommunications, the defense ministry, and the entire rural area through mandatory services of 90,000 men in civil vigilante patrols.

As a shadow government, the army would not hesitate to exert its power. Most recently, in September, in response to massive popular protests over price hikes, it detained over a thousand people and occupied the national university for the first time in its 309-year history.

After scorched-earth campaigns that have destroyed hundreds of villages and left thousands of civilians dead since 1980, and with violence so institutionalized that "que massacre" ("what a massacre") has become a common expression of disgust, it is not surprising that Guatemalans desperately hope for real reform.

But the new Christian Democratic president has already dismissed land reform as unworkable--this in an agricultural country where three-quarters of the population subsist on only 10% of the least fertile land. And it seems unlikely that his party will dare confront the military's hitherto unchallenged "security" control or its consequences, including an estimated 38,000 disappeared, another of Guatemala's dubious "firsts" among Latin American nations.


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