Corruption, Not Communism, Rears as Guatemala Democracy's Bugaboo

Article excerpt

GUATEMALA CITY -- This country with one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere is suddenly being led by an advocate who has struggled to expose that record to the world. Since Ramiro de Leon Carpio's election by a special session of Congress, Guatemalans from various walks of life have become fond of saying they have their "best and maybe last" chance at real democracy.


De Leon, 51, was the country's attorney general for human rights until swearing his midnight oath of office as president June 5. The event ended 10 days of tumultuous politics and national stress.

The rights advocate replaced Jorge Serrano, the temperamental president who halfway through his five-year term staged a "self-coup," suspending constitutional guarantees and taking dictatorial powers to "fight corruption." It happened in an atmosphere of civic rage, but without bloodshed.

Serrano's power grab met with strong public resistance. Then there was a failed attempt to replace him by a close friend, Vice President Gustavo Espina. The all-powerful army threw its support first behind one civilian then another.

There is profound irony and hope for Latin America in the picture of a man with de Leon's history sitting in the president's seat. For more than four years he headed the government's ombudsman office with 22 provincial branches. The office received complaints, brought court cases and published results of investigations, even when they connected members of security forces to abuse.

On May 25, de Leon escaped dozens of armed police that Serrano sent to his home to arrest him and became a symbol of opposition to the coup.

"He has very much lived 'the situation' of many Guatemalans," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who led public protests. "He is a person who has fought much for human rights."

If there is hope in de Leon's ascent to the national palace, there is also a grave lesson from recent events for him and other politicians: Unless official corruption is controlled, it will undermine Guatemala's fledgling attempts at democracy.

Corruption, not anticommunism or the threat of drug traffic, may become the pretext for coups in the 1990s. It worked for Peru's President Alberto Fujimori, who staged a successful "self-coup" last year that Serrano clearly tried to imitate.

In fact, when Serrano kicked out the congressmen and judges, there was secret or outright approval. The public has been disgusted with their corruption and frustrated with the failure of the court system to provide redress to those who do not threaten or suborn it. With return to law, the same congressmen and judges are back.

Lavish-living Congress President Jose Lobo Dubon, often caricatured as the face of corruption, administered the oath of office to de Leon, which clouded the joy of many watching the ceremony on television.

National press and others close to events say Serrano, top congressmen and the president of the Supreme Court became involved in a web of corruption and bribery involving official slush funds worth tens of millions of dollars, money sometimes spent to influence lawmakers.

When their deals went sour, and the others prepared charges against Serrano so he might fall in the manner of Venezuelan ex-president Carlos Andres Perez, Serrano staged his preemptive strike, dissolving Congress and the courts. It is a story as typical of Latin politics of the past as Serrano's fall may be of new Latin politics.

The new politics are more beholden to international funding, which looks askance at dictatorships. Within hours of the coup, Washington and other world capitals cut aid to put the financial screws on Serrano.

But the new politics is also increasingly answerable to civic coalitions tired of the old ways. An administration, even de Leon's, that tolerates corruption risks disfavor or worse. …