Beware the Demons Loosed by Guatemala's Coup
McConahay, Mary Jo, National Catholic Reporter
GUATEMALA CITY -- Unless they are reined in quickly, the antidemocratic demons unleashed by Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano's predawn "selfcoup" May 25 could spread quickly to the rest of Central and Latin America.
Clearly inspired by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's successful selfcoup last year, Serrano's action will be closely watched by military and civilian authorities elsewhere on the continent. If it holds, they easily could see it as an acceptable model for bloodlessly suppressing growing discontent at a time when Latin America is considered one of the hottest economic regions in the world.
Because of its potential spillover effect, Serrano's suspension of key constitutional rights and the dissolution of Congress also confronts the Clinton administration with its first Latin American challenge. "If I were in Washington, I'd be asking myself now, 'How does this look from Mexico City or San Salvador?'" said one longtime U.S. expert on Guatemala.
For analysts struggling to determine why Serrano chose this moment to stage the coup, the answers are several:
* Serrano was facing increasing calls for investigation of his personal finances and accumulation of real estate since he took office two years ago. Like Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Peres and recently impeached Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, Serrano could have found his position imperiled by an unraveling corruption scandal.
* Serrano was under growing pressure from the army to show a strong fist, even as the army was being pressured to negotiate a peace treaty with guerrillas it had defeated militarily. Recent court cases that for the first time found military officers guilty of murdering civilians and mounting opposition in the countryside to forced conscription and service in paramilitary patrols added to the military's discontent.
* Serrano and the military were both stunned by the intensity of resistance to recent decisions to raise electricity prices and issue a national student identity card. In protests last week, thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets in small but provocative antigovernment demonstrations, thereby underscoring a deeper public distrust of Serrano's government.
Serrano is banking on public support for the coup with a cap on electricity prices for the poorest users and pledges to guarantee funds to public hospitals. "We're in favor of him in this path," said Rina Reyes, 45, a maid who makes $45 a month and recently paid $16 for electricity. She expects her post-coup light bills to run under $5.
Citizens unanimously agree with Serrano's condemnation of most congressmen and his frustration with the judicial system -- which he also disbanded. "But did he have to suspend the constitution to do it?" wondered a parking lot attendant uneasily, in a typical reaction. …