FOR one tense week in 1993, Guatemala teetered between democracy
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
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
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
"Serrano overcame opposition to legislation through bribes and
threats," says former Defense Minister Hector Gramajo. …