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Guatemala braces for surge of Army-leftist battles

Leftist guerrilla activity here gathered such momentum in January that observers think it may presage major guerrilla offensives later in the year. Actually, leftist guerrillas have been on the offensive for the past year -- attacking military posts, striking at government installations, and ambushing Army officers in the countryside. There were at least 20 incidents of this sort in January, and February began with the same pattern.

There is also a new component to leftist activity: kidnapping of foreign businessmen. Although leftists kidnapped businessmen and diplomats for a time in the 1960s, the practice was dropped in the 1970s. Now the guerrillas appear to be trying it again.

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Two US citizens were abducted in December; one was later released. In early February, an Australian was kidnapped. Observers think these acts are an effort to bring the maximum amount of publicity possible to the leftist cause. It appears such publicity is important because leftists, by themselves, do not seem strong enough to pose a serious threat to the government of President Romeo Lucas Garcia.

Still, the guerrillas pose a dilemma for the government. Despite General Lucas Garcia's claim early this month that "the country is calm," there is evidence that government officials and the general's fellow officers are worried about the surge of guerrilla activity.

"It could prove enough to make the government impose a variety of repressive measures that would, in the long run, work more to the guerrillas' advantage," comments one European diplomat here. "It would draw public sympathy to the guerrillas, who at the moment do not seem to have too much support."

Many observers think the Lucas Garcia government has already begun applying repressive tactics against the guerrillas: The Army is sweeping into areas of suspected guerrilla strength and police arrest citizens on the slightest of provocations.

Not all of General Lucas Garcia's fellow officers are in agreement with such tactics against the leftists. Some favor a more delicate approach. Aware that there could be an outburst of public disapproval against the government, these officials favor a variety of economic and social reforms that would, in effect, pull the rug out from under the guerrillas, who argue that Guatemala's economic and social structures tend to benefit the few who are rich over the many who are poor. The four leftist groups have long argued for a revamping of social structures more beneficial to the poor.

In January the leftists also took aim at the government for supporting the Salvadoran military, which is waging what amounts to a war against leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.

The four Guatemalan groups -- the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres, the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, the Organizacion del Pueblo en Armas, and the Partido Guatemal Teco del trabajo -- find it difficult to work together, but they issued a joint communique on Guatemala's support for the Salvadoran military. An inability to coalesce has long bedeviled the leftists, but observers here feel their common purpose strengthens the possibility of joint actions in the future.

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Leftists are proving more successful in the countryside than in the cities. Some specialists in guerrilla warfare here doubt that this year's stepped-up activity will have much effect unless the leftists develop an urban strategy. Part of the problem in the cities is that an urban middle class, hard-pressed by inflation and other economic problems, is relatively supportive of the government. Any new support developing for guerrillas here is based less on left vs. right than on urban vs. rural.

What consequences this may have for the long haul are not clear. But with growing urbanization, this largely rural country is less rural today than it was 10 years ago.

The middle class is clearly a factor that must be weighed in the social equation of Guatemalan society. It likes the affluent life, even if there are numerous problems. Members of this group are likely to vote in support of a continuation of the present economic arrangements when presidential elections are held 15 months from now. The campaign has yet to get under way in earnest, but there is some preliminary jockeying, and the campaign, which probably will start in September, will undoubtedly become intertwined with the guerrilla activities. But it is way too early to forecast how the campaign will be affected by the leftist activity -- or how the campaign will affect the guerrillas. Candidates ha ve not announced yet.

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