Public Demands Lead to Reforms in Guatemala after Protests Oust the President, Congress and Judiciary Are Targeted Series: LATIN AMERICA CITIZENS COUNTER CORRUPTION. This Is Part Three of a Series. Earlier Stories Appeared on March 2 and 16; the Next Appears March 23. First of 2 Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

FOR one tense week in 1993, Guatemala teetered between democracy and dictatorship.

In the name of wiping out corruption, on May 25, 1993, President Jorge Serrano Elias decided to emulate Peru's President Alberto Fujimori by abolishing the Congress and judiciary.

But unlike Peruvians, who have backed Mr. Fujimori, Guatemalan society rejected Mr. Serrano's autogolpe or self-coup. Youths tied black ribbons around trees to mourn the "death" of democracy. Guatemala's business, social, Indian, and labor forces opposed Serrano via public declarations and demonstrations.

Surrounded by hundreds of supporters on the steps of the downtown cathedral, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, an eloquent voice for Guatemala's indigenous population, denounced the self-coup. Ms. Menchu met for the first time with the country's most powerful business coalition to plot Serrano's removal.

The outcome of Serrano's coup might have been different 10 years earlier when the Army was torching Indian villages in its war against Marxist guerrillas. But since 1985, Guatemala's generals have accepted a democratic transition, though Indians continue to complain of repression. Neither the Army's traditional allies, the business elite, nor the rest of society supported Serrano.

He fled the country on June 1. The Guatemalan Congress voted to replace him with former human rights ombudsman Ramiro de Leon Carpio.

Guatemalans rejected Serrano's methods, but they approved of his motive: to purge the Congress and judiciary of corruption. President De Leon has made that mandate a top priority.

"The corrupt should leave the state because this is the popular clamour," De Leon said. Two months later, Congress hadn't budged. But according to a September poll, 91 percent of Guatemalans still wanted the purge.

Responding to Congress's foot-dragging, protesters from Indian, labor, and other groups staged a sit-in in the legislative chamber to support De Leon. Mug shots of 16 allegedly corrupt congressmen were published in full-page advertisements, paid for by a business association. The photo caption read: "If these are the fathers of the nation, wouldn't you prefer to be an orphan?"

Eventually, about half of Guatemala's 116 legislators resigned. The rest refused to go. Some balked over the purge because they saw it as a political maneuver to reduce their party's influence in the legislature. The weekly newsmagazine Cronica reported that the Christian Democrats were worried about losing their congressional immunity and, if the judiciary was purged, special favors from friendly judges.

Serrano hadn't had a majority in Congress. To get legislation passed, he made payoffs, say congressional sources requesting anonymity. Indeed, in his address justifying the autogolpe, Serrano complained of having to "submit to political blackmail" by congressmen.

"Serrano overcame opposition to legislation through bribes and threats," says former Defense Minister Hector Gramajo. …