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Inflation and violence spark discontent with Guatemala leader

Vincio Cerezo Ar'evalo has weathered the first labor challenge to his 17-month-old presidency. But he is still faced with discontent over deteriorating economic conditions, a wave of common crime, continuing political violence, and questions about whether he really controls the powerful Guatemalan Army. A two-week public workers strike last month that involved 200,000 people at its high point weakened in the face of the government's firm refusal to concede salary raises to the relatively well-paid public employees. The strike is symptomatic of a more generalized discontent over the loss in income that the average family has suffered because of rising prices.

One foreign economic analyst estimates the loss of real income since 1980 at 20 percent. Other analysts put the figure even higher.

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Prices jumped immediately after Mr. Cerezo, under prodding from the United States and business groups, instituted austerity measures last June. The measures were applauded by some who say currency devaluation was necessary to halt inflation. And they say the measures have shown success: prices stabilized after the initial increase as did the exchange rate of the national currency. The Central Bank says inflation has been cut from 40 percent to 12 percent.

But other economists are not as upbeat. ``Figures in this country are always suspect, but I would estimate that inflation continues at a much higher rate than the Central Bank says,'' a European diplomat says.

Cerezo's critics in the labor movement accuse him of abandoning his populist promises in favor of economic policies that would benefit the powerful and very conservative business sector.

A central theme of Cerezo's presidency is concertacion, which literally means harmonizing but figuratively translates: creating harmony between different sectors. But critics say Cerezo has worked harder at ``harmonizing'' with Guatemala's two most-powerful forces - the ultraconservative private sector and the military - than with the bulk of the Guatemalans that elected him.

``People had many expectations at first,'' one left-wing union leader says. The government still has a bit of credibility, but it's losing it bit by bit. The government has space, it still has support. But more and more people are talking about how this government isn't any different from past military governments. And the shadow of repression is still fresh in people's minds. The killings and disappearances continue.''

International human rights groups and observers monitoring the situation say killings actually have increased during the Cerezo presidency, although the government says most are the result of common crime.

Human rights analysts concede that common crime has skyrocketed and that political violence has decreased from the heights of the officially directed repression in the late 1970s and early '80s that earned Guatemala the reputation as one of the worst violators of human rights in the Western hemisphere.

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Still, these rights analysts say, political violence linked to the Army and the security forces continues. ``One thing is clear, the killings are more selective now but they continue,'' says a foreigner who closely monitors humanrights.

The US Embassy recorded 131 political killings in 1986. Most human rights observers consider this figure low, since it is based on local press accounts by conservative newspapers, which have close ties to the Army and security forces. The victims' relatives are usually afraid and seldom publically identify the killing as political.

Human rights groups mention several cases clearly linked to the Army or security forces:

In January, an Indian man living here was ordered to report to the local police. He never returned. Then his mother was kidnapped by armed men. Two days later, their bodies were found outside the city with torture marks. The papers reported it as a ``common crime.''

In February, Edgar Arana, a former leader of the medical students association, was killed. He had returned from political exile in Mexico last August.

In April, a young woman who had been in the country five days after returning from exile in Mexico was kidnapped. Her boyfriend, a guerrilla, was killed several years ago. Inhabitants of an apartment building overlooking an Army base in the capital saw the young woman being taken out of a car. Her father, politically well connected, went immediately to the Army base but was told she wasn't there. He then contacted Cerezo and various diplomats. Cerezo reportedly told the father the case would have ``a happy outcome,'' according to diplomatic sources, and she was released soon afterward.

``The case shows the repressive system of the Army is still functioning and Cerezo is well aware of it,'' says one European diplomat. ``I'm very concerned about the continuing political violence. The situation is not good.''

``Cerezo's gotten off remarkably easy on the issue of the violence,'' another diplomat says. ``The government says it isn't killing or disappearing. But is the Army part of the government? Cerezo is connected to the violence even if he didn't order it. He's not separated.''

Diplomats here and religious sources throughout Guatemala say in most areas outside the capital the military continues to be the real power.

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