Cerezo, Guatemala's New Leader, Sees Duarte as an Object Lesson

George Black , editor of NACLA Report on the Americas, published by the North American Congress on Latin America, made extended visits to Guatemala and El Salvador during the last three months.

On Tuesday, Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo will be inaugurated as the new civilian president of Guatemala.

Cerezo has raised hopes that a new democratic era may now be dawning in a country that has been run by the military for more than 30 years. His victory has also been widely hailed as further proof that Christian Democracy, long driven underground by generals who equated it with communism, will now emerge as the democratic wave of Central America's future.

Cerezo won a sweeping mandate, taking more than 68% of the vote after fending off a spiteful campaign by his opponent, right-wing newspaper owner Jorge Carpio Nicolle.

In a series of lurid television ads before the vote, and an equally vindictive set of editorials afterward in his newspaper, El Grafico, Carpio warned Guatemalans that the "internationalist doctrine" of Christian Democracy would submerge Guatemala in the same chaos and violence as neighboring El Salvador.

Carpio's paper was outraged when, within days of his victory, Cerezo embarked on a highly publicized whistle-stop tour of Central American capitals. His first stop was San Salvador, where he met with his Christian Democratic counterpart, Jose Napoleon Duarte. The contrasts of style and substance between the two leaders offer some interesting pointers to Cerezo's chances of consolidating Guatemala's much-vaunted democratic opportunity.

The visual differences between the two men might have been designed by Central Casting. Duarte has now held the presidency for more than 18 months, and has aged visibly in that time. His suits seem more crumpled, the bags under his eyes deeper and darker. Cerezo, almost 20 years younger, appeared sleek and handsome at their joint press conference, with a definite spring in his step.

"Duarte's experience has taught me many things," Cerezo said in an interview. "He's been quite skillful in making deals with the armed forces, but he's also had to make concessions. When Duarte took power he was up against a battle on three fronts: against the guerrillas, the army and the private sector. And the war was close to being lost. In that kind of situation, who knows what you can do. But my situation is completely different."

He must confront a recalcitrant private sector, to which phrases like tax reform and agrarian reform are anathema, and which is not averse to calling in the death squads to protect its privileges. Cerezo himself has survived three of their attacks.

Even Cerezo's own Christian Democratic Party is to the right of the new president: "This will be a centrist government in the sense that Vinicio is a liberal and the rest of the party are conservatives," remarked one experienced local commentator. But Cerezo was the only leader whom the party found, in the Spanish word, presidenciable .

Cerezo's main restraint, however, comes from an army that has grown accustomed to the habits of omnipotence. The recent elections, Cerezo acknowledged, "were not a gracious concession on the part of the military." In fact, they were the culmination of a three-stage strategy that the army embarked on four years ago.

The first stage was a dirty war to rid Guatemala of "communist subversion." The second was to build a sweeping network of agencies and bureaucracies, including dozens of model villages and so-called "development poles," which have given the army carte blanche in the Indian countryside. The third was described candidly by the powerful army chief of staff, Gen. Rodolfo Lobos Zamora, as a plan to hold "elections with a massive turnout" and to secure the foreign aid "which might help Guatemala to defeat subversion."

Cerezo is fully aware that these are the terms of his presidency. Journalists repeatedly put the same questions to him: Will he embark on a barnstorming first 100 days like Peruvian President Alan Garcia? Will he follow in the footsteps of Argentina's Raul Alfonsin and put senior military officers on trial for past human-rights abuses? He answers patiently that this is out of the question: "The Guatemalan army is not an army in defeat like in Argentina. If I put army officers on trial, I'd be committing suicide."

Yet Cerezo still talks in terms of using what little space he has to carve out a little more, and eventually to have enough to enact the social and economic reforms that he has preached for years. That is language that his Salvadoran opposite number, Duarte, rarely uses these days. Duarte's election promises of reform have faded into the background; in their place is the conviction that everything takes second place to the needs of the war against the guerrillas.

Duarte's rhetoric has become more intemperate as he appeals to his old adversaries in the oligarchy to make a "common stand against communist subversion." He stridently attacks his old Social Democratic colleagues as "terrorists" for backing the guerrillas and forbids them to return to El Salvador--a move many of them are eager to make. In the same tone, Duarte justifies repressing bread-and-butter disputes by labor unions loyal to the Christian Democrats because they "play into the hands of the terrorists."

This is the language of the U.S. Embassy and the high command of the armed forces, not of the Christian Democratic Party. And by adopting it, Duarte has painted himself into a corner, alienating his traditional supporters and leaving himself even more hostage to the very forces that limit his powers in the first place. His response to weakness has been to turn ever more to the United States.

Duarte's December visit, the high point of which was his appearance as guest of honor at a Christmas gathering of the Council on Foreign Relations, was his fifth of the year. "No foreign leader has visited Reagan as often," commented one leading political analyst in San Salvador. "And each photograph of Duarte embracing Reagan only deepens his dependence." Cerezo, too, has a shrewd grasp of the politics of the photo-opportunity, and his appeal as a democratic symbol in Washington is if anything greater at the moment even than Duarte's. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams hailed Cerezo's election as "absolutely fantastic," and Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, went into verbal overdrive, declaring that "I have never, ever been as excited and personally honored" by a foreign dignitary.

But Cerezo is more wary than Duarte of the consequences of Washington's embrace and seems to have a sharper desire to translate the symbolic dimensions of his office into real bargaining power. His December tour of Central American capitals--including Managua--was a pointed message that he does not intend to copy Duarte's unswerving fidelity to U.S. regional diplomacy. Guatemala's Christian Democrats will instead pursue a policy of "active neutrality."

Both Duarte and Cerezo operate within hostile force fields, but with one crucial difference. While Washington sets the margins within which Duarte governs, it has relatively little leverage in Guatemala. It is not running a war there, and it may not be able to buy its way in with economic aid. Duarte's experience, says Cerezo, has also taught him that "U.S. aid will have its price. The more aid they give, the greater the conditions. Less aid, more autonomy."

Cerezo claims his earliest political awakening came in 1954 when, as a 12-year old he watched U.S. aircraft buzzing Guatemala City, heralding the CIA-sponsored coup that destroyed the country's last democratic government. Though favoring a harmonious relationship with Washington, he feels that the safest way of buttressing the current democratic opening is to keep the United States at arm's length.

The Reagan Administration in turn should go beyond applause for the symbolism of Cerezo's victory and back its substance. That will mean allowing Cerezo to be Cerezo in a way that Duarte has never managed to be Duarte.

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