Marco Vinicio Cerezo
Marco Vinicio Cerezo; drawing by David Levine


Last December a schoolteacher who was to leave for asylum in Canada the next day was found by a roadside south of Guatemala City, with both her hands cut off and a sign on her chest bearing the inscription, “more to follow.” What distinguished the murder of Beatriz Barrios Marroquín from countless other atrocities against Guatemalan civilians was its timing. She was killed three days after Marco Vinicio Cerezo was elected President: the paramilitary death squadron believed responsible for the crime was sending a message to the new civilian government.

In the Guatemalan highlands, death squadrons work closely with the counter-insurgency army units, or kaibiles, which are accountable for most of the mass killings of Indians in “areas of conflict” that have been infiltrated by guerrillas. One of the chief questions facing Cerezo after he was elected was whether he would be able to bring the kaibiles under a unified command and curb their assaults on Indian communities. So far he has not done so. The kaibiles’ rank are largely composed of Indian conscripts whose ties with their communities have been systematically broken down by harsh training and indoctrination in army camps. They are then equipped with Galil automatic rifles and sent back to the countryside to prey on their former neighbors.

A typical kaibil operation was the July 1982 massacre at the estate and hamlet of San Francisco, in a remote highland district close to the Mexican border. Three hundred and fifty residents—men, women, and children—were slaughtered by Indian soldiers. The survivors said that the soldiers laughed at the sounds the older men made as their throats were cut with rusty machetes. The army’s justification for the killings was a local commander’s report that the settlement gave supplies to the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, which was active in the vicinity. But the killings also served the larger purpose of depopulating the countryside so that it could be brought under stricter military control. At least nine thousand residents fled their homes from nearby villages and towns and crossed into Mexico, adding to the tens of thousands of Guatemalans crowded into refugee camps along the border. (About half of them were later relocated inside Mexico.) The few campesinos who eventually made their way to the United States were denied asylum by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which claimed they were economic rather than political refugees. (Less than 2 percent of Guatemalan and Salvadoran applicants are granted asylum in the United States.)

The San Francisco massacre was not an isolated event, despite the high number of victims. Other mass murders include the army’s shooting of more than one hundred unarmed Kekchí Indians in the plaza of Panzós in 1978 after local farmers protested the seizure of their communal lands. In January 1980, five peasant leaders from Quiché and twenty-two supporters were burned alive during a peaceful demonstration inside the Spanish embassy. Shock troops of the National Police, under direct orders from President Romeo Lucas García, stormed the building in disregard of the Spanish ambassador’s energetic protests.

The Guatemalan government’s record of human rights violations is the worst in the Western hemisphere since Baby Doc Duvalier was ousted from Haiti. A 1984 census found that 120,000 orphans had been created by counterinsurgency operations throughout the country. Altogether, more than 100,000 Guatemalans are estimated by various sources to have been killed since 1954, and 38,000 more have disappeared. (According to Americas Watch, this represents 42 percent of the desaparecidos in all of Latin America.) During the past eight years, since the army launched a scorched-earth campaign in the highlands, close to one million campesinos have been displaced from their homes.

Most of these victims have been Indians, who make up some four million of the population of 8.2 million and who have always resented domination by Europeans and by their mixed-breed descendants, called ladinos. Historians have long argued that the standards of brutality against Guatemala’s Indians were set 450 years ago by Hernán Cortés’s fair-haired captain, Pedro de Alvarado, who plundered and slaughtered hundreds of Indian communities during the early years of the conquest.1 (Many more thousands were wiped out by the Old World diseases the Spaniards brought with them.) Cortés himself denounced Alvarado as “a madman” after he hanged the chiefs of the Indian communities that had been his allies in the conquest. (A second cycle began in the late nineteenth century, when Guatemala’s well-to-do politicians of the Liberal party abolished communal land holdings and passed peonage laws to create a seasonal work force of penniless Indians for the newly emerging coffee plantations.) Guatemala’s military leaders have proven to be worthy successors to Alvarado.

Guatemala’s internal wars are largely responsible for the country’s economic collapse, marked by unprecedented budget deficits, close to 50 percent unemployment and “underemployment,” 38 percent inflation, and a currency, the quetzal, whose exchange value with the dollar has declined 300 percent in three years. In the first quarter of 1986, the cost of living index rose 37 percent, which creates severe hardships for all Guatemalans below the upper middle class. The economic decline looks most dramatic when compared with the country’s situation in 1979, when Guatemala seemed likely to become the principal force within a Central American Common Market. That year its gross national product grew by 5 percent, and it received roughly twice as many investment dollars as all the other Central American republics combined. One billion dollars of that foreign and domestic capital has since fled the country. “Central America’s Venezuela,” as an entrepreneur called Guatemala in 1978, when vast oil reserves were thought to be awaiting exploitation in its northern reaches,2 is instead close to becoming Central America’s Bolivia.



The Christian Democrat leader Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, who is forty-three, became president of Guatemala on December 8, when he won nearly 70 percent of the votes cast in a runoff election against the center-right candidate of the Union of the National Center. A prolabor lawyer and civil rights advocate, Cerezo was only the third civilian to take office since the socialist general Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was overthrown in 1954. Cerezo was twelve years old when the CIA organized the invasion from Honduras that replaced Arbenz with the first of nine progressively more brutal military regimes. “I was leaning against a tree watching and crying as the planes circled over the capital,” he told an interviewer prior to the election. “I did not have a clear idea of what was happening, but felt we were losing our sense of freedom and human rights, and I decided then that we would have to struggle in order to get them back.”

Cerezo’s inauguration speech last January 14 was high-minded and eloquent. He talked of the deep-seated corruption and the violence that afflicts the country’s four million Indians. He also complained of having inherited an empty treasury. Without spelling out specific reforms, he pleaded for time and understanding to help him reestablish civilian authority after thirty years of calamitous military rule.

Cerezo’s first six months in office have underscored the limits that have been imposed on his presidency by his predecessor, General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, who nevertheless prides himself on having been responsible for an orderly transition to civilian rule. The precedents for the survival of civilian government are not encouraging. The last civilian head of state was Julio César Méndez Montenegro, a moderate leftist and the current ambassador to Mexico. In 1966 he was allowed to assume the office he had won at the polls only after he signed an agreement with the military, which was heavily armed and trained by the US. The eight-point contract he accepted gave the army authority to appoint its own minister of defense and chief of staff, and to carry on the war against the leftist guerrillas in any way it chose. Before his election, Cerezo promised he would never submit to such humiliation, that he would rather resign and provoke a coup to show up the army’s hollow pledges—and cause a popular uprising—than stay in office as the military’s stooge.

Nevertheless, he has allowed to stand a number of decrees passed by Mejía Víctores during his last days in office. They provide for the continuation of the so-called civil defense patrols to assure military control in the countryside, and amnesty from prosecution for all crimes committed by officials during the last two military governments. Thus far, neither Cerezo nor the Congress, in which Christian Democrats have a majority, have shown any determination to defy the military by abrogating these decrees—although Cerezo has repeatedly stated his intention to turn the civil defense patrols into voluntary “defense committees.”

Cerezo has gained respect by surviving three attempts that have been made on his life since 1980. “A democrat does not have the right to be naive,” he told Harry Reasoner on 60 Minutes, to explain why he travels with a small arsenal of weapons. He also subscribes to Soldier of Fortune magazine, and practices martial arts, such as karate. In fact he now gets on well with many military people and has cultivated close relations with younger, middle-echelon army officers. Yet he could not forestall the appointment of a henchman of Mejía Víctores to the Ministry of Defense.

The new minister, Jaime Hernández Mendez, is a former head of the elite Honor Guard, who had been in charge of counterinsurgency in northern Quiché and in El Petén. But Hernández is supposed to retire during the coming months, and if he does so Cerezo will be able to appoint his own defense minister. Cerezo may have blocked the appointment to the Ministry of Defense of General Rodolfo Lobos Zamora, the former army Chief of Staff who is accused by human rights groups of being among the “intellectual authors” of the military’s program of political killings and abductions during recent years. Instead, Cerezo named Lobos Zamora ambassador to Panama, a controversial appointment which grants him diplomatic immunity from prosecution.


Cerezo’s boldest decision so far has been to purge and reorganize the security forces, which are responsible for a high proportion of civilian murders and disappearances. In late January he fired the six hundred members of the Department of Special Investigations (DIT), formerly the Judicial Police. But no charges have been lodged against any of them because of the amnesty decrees, and more than half are being “retrained” before they are absorbed into the National Police. It is unlikely that Cerezo will take any significant action soon against the military’s own intelligence services, the dreaded G-2, which are responsible for wide-spread assassinations of political and trade union leaders, university professors and students, journalists, and priests. The G-2’s activities are directed by the highest levels of the military from its headquarters in the fourth floor of the National Palace. It has amassed extensive files of “subversives” with the help of Tadiran computers supplied by Israel, and presumably the appearance of Cerezo’s own name in these files, with a list of his activities as a university student and civil rights advocate, helps to explain the three attempts on his life.

In the meantime, the violence in Guatemala continues. Cerezo himself has reported that there were sixty-nine political murders of civilians during his first three weeks in office, and “only 560 after six months.” (Diplomatic sources say the figure is closer to 700.) Recently there has been a rise in common delinquent crimes provoked by severe unemployment and the prohibitively high prices of food and other necessities. In the countryside, large numbers of innocent civilians continue to be killed outright or “disappeared” by the army’s counterinsurgency operations. In June four military officers, among them Cerezo’s pilot, were brutally assassinated. The murder of the pilot and public relations officer Luis Fernando Galich has been linked to an ongoing investigation of corruption in the former military government.

Cerezo has yet to make good on his campaign promise to let the people decide the fate of the civil defense patrols which now consist of nearly one million campesinos. These rural militias are the main vehicle of the army’s strategy in the highlands. Nearly the entire male population is forced to take part in the patrols, which are organized in twenty-four hour shifts to root out “subversives.” “Bitter and Cruel,” a 1984 report by a British parliamentary group, denounced the civil patrols as “a form of involuntary slavery” under which the peasants have to participate in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of their own neighbors if they are themselves to avoid being persecuted by the army.

In addition to the dismal state of the economy and an entrenched military bent on retaining power, Cerezo is facing a revitalized insurgency movement. Three guerrilla organizations with a combined membership of two thousand hard-core fighters are again carrying out successful attacks in the northern regions of El Petén, in the central and western highlands, and in the southern coast plantations. The guerrillas’ spokesmen have recently shown a willingness to open a “dialogue” with Cerezo if certain conditions are met, chief among them a purge of the army’s high officers and easing the repression against Indian communities. While Cerezo says he welcomes these overtures from rebel leaders—several of whom he knew as a student activist in the Sixties—he is still postponing talks and an offer of amnesty to the guerrillas “until we have reestablished the rule of law.”

An especially sensitive issue Cerezo has inherited is how best to acknowledge the size and cost of the war that has been raging in Guatemala for the past three decades. Apart from the appalling number of civilian casualties, unofficial military sources say as many as three hundred officers and two thousand soldiers have been killed by the guerrillas since 1979. (The US State Department estimates that fifty-nine military officials were killed in 1985 alone.) These figures have not been divulged by the army, which seldom publishes its losses. By making public the extent of the army’s losses at the right time, Cerezo could do much to discredit the military and to deepen the divisions between reform-minded junior officers and the intractable hard-liners at the top. But it is not at all clear whether he can muster the political will—as well as the national and international backing—for undertaking such a risk.

One of Cerezo’s persistent worries is a relatively small but vocal human rights organization, the Group for Mutual Support (GAM), made up of courageous relatives of the disappeared. The organization claims to have been inspired by the example of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. On January 10 more than one thousand members of GAM, most of them Indians, marched in the capital to demand that the military government admit responsibility for nearly eight hundred unaccounted-for disappearances. Since Cerezo’s inauguration GAM’s membership has continued to grow as more families with missing relatives have become bold enough to speak out. Officially, Cerezo has declared that it is not the business of the executive branch to prosecute its own military forces, and he disclaims any responsibility for human rights abuses that took place before he assumed office. He has tried to placate GAM with a promise to set up an impartial commission to rule on the disappearances and investigate secret detention centers, where GAM claims some of their relatives might still be found. But Cerezo and GAM have not been able to agree on who will head an investigative commission, and plans for setting one up have been repeatedly forestalled by Cerezo.

Two of the founders of GAM were killed in 1985. The surviving founder is Nineth de García, a young schoolteacher whose husband, a university student and union leader, was “disappeared” two years ago. Nineth de García has shown herself to be Cerezo’s match in both eloquence and courage. She has requested that distinguished international figures like Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, head the investigative commission; and she has embarrassed Cerezo by dismissing the dissolution of the DIT as a “diversionary tactic that changes nothing,” and by pointing out the futility of setting up a commission to investigate crimes for which the culprits have been pardoned in advance. More recently GAM has threatened to make formal charges before a civil court of justice against three generals, Mejía Víctores, Lobos Zamora, and Efraín Ríos Montt, whom they hold accountable for at least 1,500 disappearances.

Last April when members of GAM demonstrated in front of the National Palace, Cerezo shouted from the balcony, “I am with the people, and GAM does not represent the people of Guatemala.” But GAM refuses to go away, and Cerezo’s remark may come back to haunt him. A group of British members of Parliament have nominated GAM for the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, and its international reputation continues to grow. In his apparent attempt to isolate GAM from the political center, Cerezo may have seriously underestimated its strength.

Cerezo’s primary concern internationally is to obtain desperately needed foreign aid while maintaining the non-aligned position he feels is vital to rebuilding civilian authority. One of the few benefits Cerezo has inherited from the previous administration is the policy of “active neutrality” of the former foreign minister, Fernando Andrade, who prevented Guatemala from becoming entangled in other Central American conflicts. Cerezo was given an officially enthusiastic welcome in Washington following his election but he soon ran up against Reagan’s insistence that economic assistance offered by the US be tied to Cerezo’s collaboration with the administration’s support for the Nicaraguan contras. (The proposed aid to Guatemala was recently lowered from last year’s $101 million to $77 million, which makes it the smallest amount offered to any Central American republic.)

While he was in Washington Cerezo asked the US to delay arms aid to Guatemala until he strengthened his hold on the presidency. But the Guatemalan military establishment, like the Salvadoran, has its friends in the Pentagon and can bypass Cerezo to obtain the $10 million already proposed for military use. In 1977 President Carter suspended military credits to Guatemala because of its dismal record of human rights abuses. The US military supplies continued to flow to the Guatemalan military through “indirect channels” arranged by the CIA. Allan Nairn, an American specialist on Guatemala, uncovered evidence that the Pentagon and private US arms dealers supplied the Guatemalan army, during the years of Carter’s ban on military sales, with 3,350 laser-aimed gunsights for M-16 rifles, and ten M-41 tanks worth $36 million.

In his travels to Latin America and the Caribbean, Cerezo has called for the withdrawal of US aid to the Nicaraguan contras. “Guatemala will not be an instrument of the US in Central America,” he said last March in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a view he repeated during his visit to Mexico City in July, the first by a Guatemalan president in nineteen years. Cerezo’s support for the Contadora negotiations has helped improve Guatemala’s chilly relations with Mexico, one of the Contadora sponsors. In May he called for a meeting in Guatemala of five Central American presidents to lay the groundwork for a regional parliament. Although the resolution was approved, it means little so long as the Contadora treaty remains unsigned. Apparently as a result of intense US pressure, Cerezo now backs the US demand for direct talks between the Sandinistas and contras as a precondition for any negotiated settlement in the region.


There is mounting evidence that Guatemala’s military leaders had been considering plans for the election of a civilian president as far back as 1982.3 In March of that year junior officers backed General Efraín Ríos Montt in a palace revolt that overthrew the cruel, corrupt, and clumsily run regime of Romeo Lucas García. Ríos Montt, a born-again evangelist, has been an ally of the Christian Democrats who had been cheated of an electoral victory in 1974. He might still be in office today were it not for his messianic excesses and his threat to carry out agrarian reform, which provoked a countercoup by the army’s hard-liners.

Under Ríos Montt, the military leaders, using such code words as “Plan Victoria ’82,” “Plan Stability ’83,” and “Institutional Reform ’84,” followed a master plan to defeat the insurgency by destroying its bases of popular support—“draining the ocean to get at the fish,” as a military strategist put it, paraphrasing Mao Zedong. During Ríos Montt’s eighteen months in office the army killed five thousand Indians and displaced hundreds of thousands more from demolished homes and villages. The army then proceeded to “pacify” the survivors with civic action programs with names such as “Rifles and Beans” or “Roof, Work, and Tortillas.” The Indians were driven into resettlement camps called “model villages” and later “poles of development,” which were designed to submerge and then neutralize the ethnic identities of rebellious Indian communities, beginning with the Ixil of northern. Quiché. The army’s goal remains, in Mejía Víctores’s own phrase, “doing away with the words ‘Indian’ and ‘indigenous,’ ” through a process called “ladinización.”4

If phrases like “Beans and Rifles” and “model villages” recall the “strategic hamlets” and slogans like “Winning Hearts and Minds” from the Vietnam War, this is because many top-level Guatemalan officers—including the new army Chief of Staff—have been trained by the US Army in Fort Benning, Georgia, and the Panama Canal Zone. After President Carter suspended military credits to Guatemala in 1977, Israel and Taiwan filled the military’s needs for arms supplies and advisers to pursue its counterinsurgency strategy. By carefully stage-managing the election of a civilian president, Guatemala’s military evidently hoped to repair its reputation as the worst violator of human rights in the Western hemisphere. That open military aid from the US will be resumed next year is one measure of that policy’s success. But a civilian president also provides a democratic façade behind which the military can consolidate its power and carry on business as usual. As Colonel Edgar D’Jalma Dominguez, a controversial former army spokesman who was reinstated by Cerezo after being dismissed by Mejía’s army Chief of Staff put it:

For convenience’s sake a civilian government is preferable, such as the one we have now; if anything goes wrong, only the Christian Democrats will get the blame. It’s better to remain outside: the real power will not be lost.


I spent the week of the elections in a central highland town, Santiago Atitlán, trying to evaluate Cerezo’s chances of restoring civilian authority in the countryside. Santiago is a Zutuhil Indian town of 25,000 fishermen, farmers, and artisans and two hundred ladinos, located or the southwest shore of Lake Atitlan where it forms a natural bridge between plantations on the south coast and the hilly zones of Sololá and Quiché to the north. Many armed clashes have taken place around Santiago between the army and guerrillas of the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), who descend periodically from the wooded slopes of neighboring volcanoes to enlist recruits and deal out guerrilla justice. The army set up a base south of town several years ago, but it has not been able to chase the guerrillas from their mountain strong-holds. The townspeople are already divided between Catholics and members of nineteen evangelical churches. They walk a fine line between outward submission to the army and a real or pretended loyalty to ORPA.

ORPA is one of two rebel organizations (the other is the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, EGP) that emerged in the Seventies, combining elements of two earlier organizations, the pro-Castro Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) and the Trotskyist MR-13, which were defeated by the US. backed pacification campaign of President Carlos Arana Osorio. (FAR is active once again in the Petén region.) ORPA is led by the son of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, and he took his Indian nom de guerre. Gaspar Ilom, from a character in his father’s novel Men of Maize. Both groups have strong connections with Cuba and Nicaragua, where some of their leaders have been trained. ORPA and EGP were the first guerrilla organizations to have impressed large numbers of Indians. In the programs they have issued since they were largely defeated in the early 1980s, they have emphasized that Indians must have positions of leadership both in the movement and in the popular government that would arise if the guerrillas took power.

Two weeks before the elections, ORPA militants were believed to be responsible for killing Santiago’s military commissioner, Nicolás Pedro, whose corruption and exploitation of his fellow towns-people had made him a marked man. The day after Pedro’s assassination his body was found ritually mutilated and his head was “disappeared,” apparently by local residents bent on revenge. This was the latest in a string of executions by ORPA; they have invariably been countered by massacres of innocent townspeople by the army or by vigilante death squads.

In spite of all the fighting in and around Santiago, the townspeople turned out on November 3 and again on December 8 to vote in Guatemala’s first elections in twenty years that could be called free of fraud. A marimba band played in the background while people cast their votes in the town plaza. They gave Cerezo 90 percent of their vote—twenty points above the national average. Cerezo had visited Santiago and impressed voters when he warned the local police that he would throw them in jail if they abused the townspeople.

The newly elected mayor of Santiago is a Zutuhil Indian and Christian Democrat named Antonio Ixbalán Cuncz. The day after the election Cuncz, a fisherman and carpenter, spoke of modernizing the town’s lighting and water plants, paving the road to San Lucas to encourage commerce, and erecting a new town hall to replace the one blown up by “unknowns” the year before.

Many of the townspeople I talked to were not expecting much from Cerezo’s presidency. Hardly anyone thinks he will prosecute the army commanders responsible for hundreds of deaths in Santiago, at least not right away; nor do they expect him to take on the powerful planters who hold 70 percent of the arable land. That would imply an immediate agrarian reform, which they know will not take place. The mayor said he hoped Cerezo would find a way to stop the inflation that has placed sugar, rice, milk, and other staples beyond the reach of the average campesino, who earns less than $250 a year. “Otherwise,” said the mayor, “how will we be able to eat?”

The other hope I heard mentioned most often is that Cerezo will disband the civil defense patrols, which keep campesinos away from their homes and fields for days at a time, without compensation for their loss of crops. Although only a quarter of the residents of Santiago can read and write, the sophistication of the voters seems to me to have risen dramatically during the past five years. “From each of the past three elections we learned something,” said Ramiro,5 a respected artisan.

Even if they were fraudulent, even if the wrong man won, we learned something. The army and the politicians can’t take that away from us. Whatever happens to Cerezo during the next few months, we plan to appoint our own council of elders that can do something for our own needs.

Such outspokenness has been uncommon in Santiago since Arbenz’s brief period of control, during which Ramiro’s uncle was the town delegate to the Agrarian Reform Council.

In April thousands of townspeople went into the streets to protest the intolerably high cost of living. They also demanded the release of a campesino unjustly arrested by the new military commissioner, Esteban Cué, who seemed determined to outdo his predecessor in committing outrages against the community. The innocent campesino was subsequently released, and Cué was arrested and charged with misconduct. Recently Santiago was among the first Indian towns to vote independently for the dissolution of the civil defense patrols in their towns.


Santiago’s solid vote for Cerezo, like that in hundreds of towns and villages throughout the highlands, is evidence of the Christian Democrats’ success in building local organizations. This year they elected 73 percent of the mayors and 51 percent of the deputies to the National Congress, one of their best showings since the party rose to prominence in the early Sixties. But their victories were bought at a steep price. Several hundred of their mayors, deputies, and municipal officers have been killed since 1979.

One reason that the Christian Democrats have become stronger is that they have allied themselves with the more progressive elements in the Catholic Church; this gained them support from voters who had become disenchanted with the paternalistic, promilitary attitudes of Archbishop Rossell y Arellano and Mario Cardinal Casariego. The approach of the current archbishop, Próspero Penado y Barrios, who supports Cerezo, is closer to that of Salvador’s liberal archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. He has criticized army abuses repeatedly, and has tried to bring pressure on Cerezo to do more to protect human rights. But he is caught “entre la pared y la espada“—“between the wall and the sword”—as a GAM member put it, and he has so far refused to endorse GAM’s demands for an investigation of the military’s crimes.

In Santiago, Cerezo did surprisingly well with the influential cofradías, or religious fraternities that combine Christian and pagan beliefs, as well as with evangelical voters who had formerly supported right-wing candidates. But Cerezo’s popularity cannot compensate for the Christian Democrats’ inexperience in running a national government. Two weeks after his election Cerezo had promised to “change the country in 126 days.” But Guatemala is still in the grip of a thirty-year-old civil war which has destroyed many traditional Indian patterns of subsistence. The long struggle to end that war and heal its wounds has barely begun.


When Cerezo was asked about the parallels between the situations in Argentina and Guatemala, he pointed out that Guatemala’s army, unlike Argentina’s had been victorious, and victors are not put on trial. But as the true costs of the army’s counterinsurgency campaign become better known, that assessment could change. Unchecked corruption and incompetence among the top officers have inflicted at least as much damage on the army as have the guerrillas: A small group of generals, for example, have taken over huge plots of land in the northern strip below Petén, while hundreds of campesinos who would not surrender the oil lands to the military were massacred. The Bank of the Army has been notorious for its flagrant corruption. The military government printed government bonds with no dollar or gold backing.

The most visible symbol of administrative corruption is the graft-ridden Chixoy hydroelectric project, which has consumed $1 billion of public funds and hasn’t worked properly since it was completed in 1982. Mejía Víctores reopened the Chixoy plant as one of his last public acts, ignoring the warning by reputable engineers that the dam’s porous foundation would cause it to cave in under stress.

During his eighteen months in office Ríos Montt tried to suppress the insurgents with a scorched-earth campaign that destroyed at least 440 villages and virtually eliminated the peasant labor-union movement. This highly publicized result of “Plan Victory” has now been shown to be a Pyrrhic one. If it was the guerrillas’ intention to deepen the division within the military, undermine private business by provoking a huge flight of investment capital, bankrupt the economy, and demoralize the civilian population, then they have succeeded even in defeat.

That much of the population and most of the businessmen are fed up with the military’s abuses and ineptitude works in Cerezo’s favor. The riots of September 1985, when Mejía Víctores tried to double bus fares to twenty cents, are a foretaste of what can happen if the military attempts another golpe before Cerezo has had a chance. I spoke with dozens of government workers who threatened to fight the army in the streets, and there is a real possibility that they would have on their side rebellious junior officers, some of whom have recently returned from foreign posts. Cerezo’s personal courage as well as that of the leaders of GAM has helped to dispel the climate of fear and intimidation in which official repression has always thrived.

On May 2, 16,000 campesinos, led by a priest, marched to the capital from lowland provinces to ask for the right to purchase unused state lands on the Pacific littoral. Cerezo told the marchers he was sympathetic to them and asked for a month to consider their demands. He has yet to respond. At Cerezo’s side on the palace balcony was his striking wife, Raquel Blandón, a law professor who calls herself “the people’s advocate,” and who is already being compared to Argentina’s Eva Peron. To many observers, the orderly march was reminiscent of similar peasant rallies during the Arbenz era, and appeared to set the stage for a confrontation with hard-line army officers and some of the rich landowners, who clearly fear the possibility of land reform, even though none had been proposed. Cerezo has also recalled the Arbenz years with a vigorous program to provide jobs through government agencies and a “war against disease” that has brought polio and other vaccines to a million children.

But there is a heritage of distrust among the Guatemalans that Cerezo will not easily overcome. Ever since the defeat of Arbenz’s reformist government in 1954, and the sell-out twelve years later of Méndez Montenegro, Guatemalans have become cynical about political promises. Like his fellow Christian Democrat Napoleón Duarte, Cerezo may have raised expectations too high before taking office. The decline of Duarte’s fortunes in El Salvador will have repercussions for Cerezo’s presidency. Both seem men with strong convictions, a stubborn will, and a charisma that gives the appearance of power but lacks the substance. The defeated center-right candidate, Jorge Carpio of the Union of the National Center, who publishes the influential daily El Gráfico, has regained some support from rightist businessmen and landowners by linking Cerezo’s policies to Duarte’s political and economic failures.

In his inauguration and in more recent statements Cerezo has emphasized that his five-year presidency will only begin to deal with Guatemala’s deep problems; he told a Time correspondent that he does not expect to hold more than 30 percent of actual power during his first two years, and no more than 70 percent at the end. This modesty and realism suggest that he may have begun to learn from Duarte’s mistakes. One may question, however, whether any leader could make headway against Guatemala’s problems under the conditions Cerezo has inherited and the political restrictions he has accepted from the military and the United States. The Reagan administration may choose to invoke the Central American Defense Council (CONDECA) Defense Treaty to try to bring Guatemala’s military into line with those of El Salvador and Honduras against the Sandinista government and Nicaragua. Simply to serve out his term Cerezo will need qualities of political judgment and courage well beyond those he has demonstrated so far. Cerezo himself posed his dilemma this way: “If we institute reform measures that affect private enterprise, and don’t take the army into account, we shall be overthrown; and if we attack the army without having the business sector on our side, the result would be the same.”

Cerezo began his term with a lucky break. The freeze in Brazil’s coffee-growing regions raised coffee prices to their highest levels in years. During the coming months, this will produce urgently needed foreign exchange, since coffee is still Guatemala’s chief export. Cerezo has also begun to comply with the austerity guidelines set by the International Monetary Fund, which call for fundamental changes in the tax structure in spite of stiff opposition from private business. Guatemala’s retrograde tax system places 82 percent of the burden on consumers through indirect taxation while only 15 percent comes from direct taxes on wealth.

Cerezo’s recent tax on export transactions that are based on a quetzal devaluation to 2.50 per dollar—as opposed to a one-to-one exchange rate for payments of the foreign debt—may persuade the IMF to negotiate a rescheduling of Guatemala’s $3 billion foreign debt and to renew loans after a two-year lapse. Cerezo’s short-term “plan of social and economic reordering” has eased the demands of labor unions by creating 40,000 new jobs, and by offering salary raises he may prove unable to deliver; for the present, even the recalcitrant chambers of commerce and industry have gone along with Cerezo’s fiscal policies, for lack of anything better. He has also been able recently to obtain loans from USAID, Western Europe, Mexico, and Venezuela for purposes of social and agricultural development, oil exploration, nutrition, and for modernizing the police force. But Cerezo is unlikely to squeeze additional foreign aid from Europe or from a US Congress until he has made demonstrable improvements in human rights. Cerezo will have to show he can diminish the violence and at the same time meet the reasonable demands of land-poor campesinos and of groups like GAM if he is to obtain the leverage to offset pressure from the hard-line militarists. Until then, Cerezo will remain a divided president, constrained by a de facto military government while he tries to make Guatemala less isolated internationally. He will continue to sound like a left-of-center liberal abroad while acting like a cautious center-right conservative at home.

One encouraging development would be the return of the prominent intellectuals and professionals who were forced to flee the country at various times since 1954, and who are living in exile mainly in Mexico, Costa Rica, the US, and Europe. During his travels to these countries after his election Cerezo told the exiles, “You have a legal right to return. Exercise it.” But then he advised them to wait six months, until he had gained control of Guatemala’s security apparatus. He still has not done so. In Mexico, he and President Madrid set up a commission to work out the return to Guatemala of some 40,000 Indians in Mexican refugee camps. So far only about two hundred families have accepted Cerezo’s invitation to return; many others have said that their lives would be threatened by the army if they did so. If exiled professors, priests, journalists, trade unionists, Social Democrats, and some of the estimated 100,000 Indians in Mexican towns and refugee camps came back to Guatemala, they could give strong support to Guatemala’s possibilities for democratic renewal. But they will need more assurances than Cerezo’s mixed performance in governing the country has provided so far.

This Issue

August 14, 1986