Guatemala: Coup and Countercoup

September 25, 2007


 In the early morning hours of May 25, 1993, President Jorge Serrano Elías of Guatemala announced the dissolution of Congress and the Supreme Court of Justice in a Fujimori-style maneuver, quickly dubbed the Serranazo. This autogolpe, or self-coup, placed all power in the hands of the executive. Serrano then proceeded to suspend portions of the 1986 Constitution, including articles guaranteeing individual rights and freedom of press. A week later, an eclectic coalition of liberals and conservatives forced Serrano to resign, and on June 6, former human rights ombudsman Ramiro de León Carpio was appointed president.

The autogolpe and the subsequent ouster of Serrano have altered the course of the eight-year political opening in Guatemala which began in 1986 with the election of Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo after a long string of military "presidents." In the midst of a deteriorating sociopolitical and economic environment, Cerezo's one main accomplishment was to be able to pass the presidential sash to Serrano in the first transfer of presidential power from one popularly elected civilian to another in Guatemalan history.

The coincidence of a number of factors led to the events of late May and early June. For one thing, the executive branch faced spiraling criticism over a series of electricity rate increases between 1991 and 1993. In 1991, rates increased 50 to 70%; in September, 1992, they again increased some 37%; and in February, 1993, the government announced that it would raise rates another 50% in order to pay for the repair of electrical towers damaged by leftist insurgents. After the February announcement, both popular and elite sectors strongly protested. Unions argued that the rate increases were a result of the government's egregious neoliberal policies which had suspended state subsidies to the Instituto Nacional de Electrificación (INDE). They also accused INDE's president, Alfonso Rodríguez Anker, a personal friend of Serrano, of siphoning hundreds of thousands of dollars from the agency. While the private sector supported Serrano's general privatization and neoliberal policies, they argued that state corruption and inefficiency–not guerrilla sabotage–explained INDE's financial straits.

Congress also divided over the issue. Because Serrano's party, the conservative Movimiento de Acción Solidaria (MAS), was so small, the executive branch had to maintain a fragile and sometimes complicated alliance with the two leading parties in Congress, the centrist Christian Democratic Party (PDCG) and the right-of-center Union del Centro Nacional (UCN). The debate over electricity rates proved enormously divisive to that coalition, and at one point Fernando Lobo Dubón, Christian Democratic congressman and the president of Congress, called on citizens to refuse to pay their electricity bills. On the day of the autogolpe. Congress had been scheduled to discuss the rate increases, limiting INDE's power to raise rates, and state subsidies for electrical power.

Political configurations were also shaken by the recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchú Tum. While some members of the government were quick to congratulate Menchú, others were obviously frightened by the significance of the event. For the first time, indigenous Guatemalans–more than 55% of the population–had an internationally respected leader who could use her prominence to fight for political recognition for the indigenous majority. Indicative of the seriousness of this challenge, after Menchú's award, political violence against popular sectors increased in the form of threats against union and human rights activists, as well as disappearances and assassinations.

The political dialogue between the Serrano government and the guerrilla movement, the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), also helped to fractionalize both the elite and the dominant political coalition. Elite factions could not agree on the direction, speed, or even need for negotiations with the URNG. This led to erratic negotiation on the part of the Serrano regime and the recent cessation of talks.

The government also came into conflict with students over the conditions of school facilities, the quality of education, and, most recently, the government's proposal to issue identification cards to students which would allow them to ride buses free of charge. Fearing that the government would in fact use the identification cards to monitor students and that the privately owned bus companies would not accept the identification cards anyway, students took to the streets. Fifteen days of student protests culminated with the assassination of a high school student, Abner Hernández, by a congressional bodyguard.

A final element which may have led to the autogolpe was the escape from prison of Hugo Roberto Contreras Alvarado, a captain in the Guatemalan army found guilty of complicity in the 1990 assassination of Michael Vernon Devine, a U.S. citizen and longtime resident and hotel owner in Guatemala. Since security at the Mariscal Zavala military-base prison where Contreras was being held was tight, it seemed almost certain that someone on the base assisted him in his escape. In fact, Contreras escaped only one day after a military spokesman was quoted as saying "there is no evidence that the captain had been involved in the crime." The Contreras escape resulted in immediate popular protest–especially from students–and international disbelief. Most civilians saw the guilty verdict and the sentence of Captain Contreras as indications that the armed forces might finally be required to obey the law or face the consequences.

Thus, by May, popular and elite discontent with the Serrano government had reached a flash point of sorts. Conservative military officers, unable to take direct control of the situation because of the altered international and domestic climate, chose to act behind the autogolpe facade presented by President Serrano. Officers had hoped that Serrano would allow the military to reestablish political order with a minimum of domestic or international interference. No one in Guatemala seemed surprised by events, although it remains unclear whether or not key private-sector leaders were consulted before the Serranazo. Citizens in general seemed uninterested in the political maneuvering in the National Palace. Many Guatemalans expressed exhaustion after years of coups and countercoups. Although traffic in the downtown sector of Guatemala City thinned, and one or two sporadic protests occurred, the daily routine of most Guatemalans varied only slightly. Offices, schools, and markets remained open; middle and upper-class teenagers continued to pack the capital's discotheques; and state violence did not appear to escalate.

Censorship, however, drastically restricted the flow of information. The media were severely censored, and only the conservative daily Prensa Libre agreed to continue publishing under such restrictions. Two television channels were taken off the air after they transmitted a news conference of the human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, in which he criticized Serrano's actions. The daily Siglo Veintiuno published a clandestine issue on May 25 decrying the autogolpe, but ceased publication after that. Even an issue of the conservative weekly Crónica was pulled by censors before it reached the newsstands.

Despite the relative calm, it soon became clear that Serrano had almost no popular or privatesector support. Serrano had argued that the dissolution of Congress and the courts was necessary in order to curb state corruption and to destroy the rising drug trade. The rationalizations did not hold up under public scrutiny. Serrano himself faced possible charges of corruption, and the drug industry had been growing with the illicit support of high officials for some time. The United States' withdrawal of economic assistance in protest against the autogolpe placed the private sector in a tailspin. The military, which had originally stood behind Serrano, began to waver. They knew that if they continued to support Serrano political instability might grow. As the Serrano facade crumbled, the military acted astutely. It led negotiations between leading private-sector groups, congressional leaders, members of the Constitutional Court, and other public and private-sector representatives to try to resolve the crisis. In fact, even Rigoberta Menchú was asked to participate in the negotiations, though she ultimately walked out, claiming that representatives were not interested in her real participation but hoped to use her presence to legitimize the process. As a consequence of the negotiations, the Constitutional Court, which Serrano had appointed after the autogolpe, asked the military to act. Serrano resigned on June lst, and conservative officers led by Defense Minister General José Domingo García Samayoa took power claiming they were responding to the "clamor of the people" to purge corrupt government officials, and restore constitutional order.

According to the agreement reached at the negotiating table, Serrano and his longtime aide, the hardline Vice President Gustavo Espina Salguero, would resign, and Congress and the courts would be reinstated. Upon reinstatement, Congress was to purge its ranks of corrupt officials. Once restored to power however, Congress balked at a self-purging and, on June 3, the military responded by appointing Espina Salguero president. At first, it appeared that Congress would confirm Espina Salguero's appointment as required by law, but opposition–supported by the United States and the Organization of American States–mounted within and outside the legislature. The Guatemalan Attorney General ultimately threatened to prosecute Espina Salguero for misuse of public funds and violation of the Constitution if his appointment was confirmed.

Lacking international and national elite support, the military abandoned Espina Salguero, and a new search began. The choices focused on Arturo Herbruger Asturias, the moderate 81-year-old head of Guatemala's electoral court, and Ramiro de León Carpio, the 51-year-old human rights ombudsman. Herbruger Asturias withdrew his nomination, and senior military officers and the legislative majority threw their support behind de León Carpio. Congress confirmed him as president on June 6. He will finish out Serrano's term in office, which will end in January, 1996.

Why did the military back de León Carpio, and what can we expect from the new president over the next few years? The Guatemalan military knew from the outset of the political Crisis that it could not directly take over the state, but must remain within the structure of formal democracy. The difficulty, however, lay in creating a political structure which would be acceptable to military hardliners as well as the private sector and the international community. De León Carpio was in many ways the natural–though not the preferred–choice of military hardliners. A lawyer and former professor of law at Rafael Landivar University, de León Carpio was appointed human rights ombudsman by Congress during the latter half of the Cerezo regime, and was reappointed in 1992. At the time of his original appointment, de León Carpio was not affiliated with any political party, although he had previously allied himself with the UCN.

During his years as ombudsman, he gained an international reputation as a human rights advocate, often facing off against the military in his call for the abolition of the Civil Self Defense Patrols and the prosecution of military officers guilty of human rights violations. He also frequently criticized the Serrano government's human rights record. He led the battle to reverse the last electricity rate increase by presenting a motion to the courts arguing that the raise "flagrantly violates the rights of Guatemalans." Still, as ombudsman, de León Carpio had very little real power. The position allowed him merely to advise he government on human rights issues, not to make laws or prosecute violators. The power that de León Carpio did wield depended upon his power of persuasion and astuteness in the political game. In 1992, his critical report on the military's human rights abuses became a small milestone in the struggle against military impunity. As early as 1989, rumors circulated that he hoped to use his position as ombudsman to galvanize public support for a run for the presidency.

His political independence, honesty, and advocacy of human rights gained de León Carpio national and international respect over the past few years. After the autogolpe, he quickly distanced himself from Serrano by temporarily resigning his post until constitutional order was restored. Serrano quickly increased that distance by issuing an order for de León Carpio's arrest, though the order was rescinded after several hours. All this proved to be a further plus for de León Carpio when a list of possible replacements for Serrano was being drawn up after the counter-coup. While civilian pressures obviously played a part in the final decision, it seems likely that the armed forces–itself divided by years of counterinsurgency warfare, coups, and counter-coups–agreed to his appointment because they saw in a de León Carpio presidency a "respectable" government in which they would nonetheless be able to play an important role. One reason for their optimism is that de León Carpio is in a difficult position. He has come to power backed by a very odd and usually conflictive group of domestic and international sectors. While alliance participants agreed on the need to remove Serrano and return to constitutional order, they will probably have a hard time agreeing on much else. It is not surprising that one of de León Carpio's first presidential acts was to oust several of the key officers involved in the autogolpe and initial counter-coup, and replace them with very similar individuals. The move could anger few, even within the military. It is still unclear what de León Carpio's socioeconomic policies will be, but whatever he does will surely divide the fragile coalition. As the alliance splits, it seems reasonable to expect the military to revert to the prominent mediating role that it played during the recent crisis. By 1986, the military had totally discredited itself. Its role in recent events, however, has moved it once again into a prominent political position. While almost no Guatemalan civilian longs for a return to the military state of the 1954-86 years, many were relieved that the military was able to oust Serrano and then play such a judicious role in restoring constitutional order. An expanded political role for the military cannot, however, bode well for the future of Guatemalan democracy.




Susan Berger is director of the Puerto Rican and Latin American Studies Institute at Fordham University in New York City.


Read the rest of NACLA's July/August 1993 issue: "Latin American Women: The Gendering Of Politics And Culture."

Tags: Guatemala, coup, Jorge Serrano Elias, military, Ramiro de Leon Carpio

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