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Guatemala; uncertainty, terror for the poor and defenseless; a Nicaragua-style revolt isn't likely to happen here

Guatemala, one is told time and again, is no Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, the middle class turned against the Somoza regime. When that happened, President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was finished. But in Guatemala, there is no such unity.A signifiant number of people among the middle and upper classes still seem to support the military-dominated regime.

"We are not going to run to Miami," say some of those who back the Lucas Garcia Government. Even if the Cuban-supported Guatemalan guerrilla movement grows in strength, even if neighboring El Salvador falls to leftist-led guerrillas, they will stick it out, they say.

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They neglect to mention that some of the wealthy have hedged their bets, sending a good part of their money to bank accounts in the United States and Panama.

But there does seem to be some truth to the "Nicaragua" theme. Despite guerrilla activity in the countryside and the almost nightly assassinations occurring right in the capital city, the well-to-do do live well. They seem to enjoy it. Diplomats estimate that as many as 25 percent of Guatemala's 7 million people live above the poverty line. If they had to choose between the guerrillas and the government, many of these relatively privileged people would obviously choose the government, the diplomats say.

As part of an image-improving operation, the generals are said to be thinking of putting forth a civilian candidate for next year's presidential election. But the candidate would be their man, and there would still be little to choose from in the middle ground between left and right. The government has eliminated so many of its moderate, noncommunist political opponents that it is amazing to find some survivors who are still willing to operate openly here.

Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, secretary-general of Guatemala's small Christian Democratic Party (PDC), is the capital city's leading survivor. Thanks to a combination of bodyguards, self-defense training, and the acquisition of a bulletproof van, he has managed over the past seven years to live through three attempts on his life.

According to the youthful, mustachioed Cerezo, 74 Christian Democrats have been assassinated since June of last year. He is certain that the death squads had links to the Lucas Garcia government.

Mr. Cerezo is hardly the leader of a radical group. But he has opposed some of the government's major economic projects. He has publicly accused the government of being responsible for the death squads that are believed to have murdered thousands of people since Romero Lucas Garcia came to power in 1978. None of these comments have apparently endeared him to the nation's oligarchs and top military officers.

On Feb. 14 more than a dozen armed men attacked Cerezo and several other PDC members just as they were leaving the party's headquarters in Guatemala City. A bystander was killed and three injured in the ensuing exchange of fire. Almost miraculously, Cerezo and his bodyguards managed safely to reach their beige-colored bulletproof van. Two of the PDC men who were with Cerezo were arrested for allegedly initiating an attack against policemen. Cerezo says he now has evidence that the assassination attempt was carried out of an elite police unit called Comando Seis.

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Cerezo said he was warned last year that top military men had made a decision to eliminate the PDC leadership. Earlier, much of the country's Social Democratic Party leadership had been wiped out. But Cerezo says that he would still consider entering next year's election if some changes could be made in the election laws. He thinks that as it is, the current system of voters registration lends itself to fraud.

It is Cerezo's willingness to continue working within the system that has apparently made him suspect in the eyes of many on both the left and right. His critics on the left seem to think that the United States might try to use Cerezo to stake out a "centrist" position in Guatemala similar to that occupied in El Salvador by Cerezo's fellow Christian Democrat, President Jose Napoleon Duarte. Critics on the right appear to harbor a similar suspicion.

But the Lucas Garcia government denies any involvement with Guatemala's death squads. For the killings it blames the left, or rightist groups that are said to be beyond government control.

In a report published in February, Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights organization, said that no convincing evidence existed that right-wind death squads operated outside government control. The report asserted that most of the assassinations are carried out by the government's civil and military security services. Their actions, according to the report, are coordinated by a special intelligence agency under the supervision of President Lucas himself.

If Amnesty is correct, most of the many "disappearances," detentions, and killings that occur in this country are far from random but are part of a system under which people who oppose, or are imagined to oppose, the government are seized without warrant, tortured, and murdered.

According to the Amnesty account, the security forces in 1980 centered their gunsights on leaders of public opinion: members of teh clergy, educators and students, lawyers, physicians, trade unionists, journalists, and community workers. But in the end most of the victims, the report says, came from among poor city people and peasants whose political activities appeared to be insignificant or wholly imagined by their captors.

Amnesty bases its report to a great extent on the testimony of two people whom it identifies as a former prisoner and a former Guatemalan soldier.

Some longtime foreign residents of Guatemala City, not to mention conservative Guatemalan business people and others, complain that Amnesty International never reports on the killings perpetrated by the left. They further allege that Amnesty's research is not based on adequate reporting from the scene.

But the allegation that the torture and killings are systematic -- and not random -- was confirmed to a degree by a Guatemalan military order who told an American acquaintance that the government does have "list" of suspected subversives. Regrettably, the officer was quoted as saying, "Someone sometimes turns up on too many lists."

Even the cautious US State Department goes far toward condemning the Guatemala regime in a human-rights report that it issued in February. Reporting on 1980, the department said that kidnappings and assassinations reached higher levels than in 1979. According to the report, deaths that appeared to be politically motivated averaged 75 to 100 a month.

"Reportedly these acts were carried out by armed extremists of the left and right and by elements of the official security forces," the State Department said. "The government has not taken effective steps to half abuses or carry out serious investigations."

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