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Guatemalans and US Put Pressure On President to Restore Democracy

Labor, religious, and political groups mount protests as US places aid and trade benefits under review

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THERE'S a saying here that sums up many Guatemalans' feelings about this week's sudden shift from a troubled democracy to a `temporary' dictatorship: Salir de Guatemala para caer en `Guatepeor.'

Loosely translated, it means going from "Guate-bad" to "Guate-worse."

While President Jorge Serrano Elias shows no sign of backing away from Tuesday's suspension of congress and the judiciary, diplomatic and economic pressure could make life more difficult for this Central American nation of 9 million people.

Americas Watch, a Washington-based human rights group, has asked the United States to suspend all except humanitarian aid. On May 26, the US State Department announced that the entire $67 million program of aid for Guatemala is now threatened.

(In fiscal 1992, US development and food assistance totaled about $47 million; separate economic support funds totaled $20 million - though only $9 million of that was actually disbursed. The Guatemalan armed forces also received about $270,000 worth of military training funds.)

But perhaps more damaging to the local economy and Mr. Serrano's cause could be the call by US labor rights groups to revoke Guatemalan industry's tariff-free access to the US market for certain products.

"We're calling for the suspension of Guatemala's General System of Preferences [GSP] benefits unless constitutional order is reinstated immediately," says Stephen Coats, director of the US-Guatemala Labor Education Project.

Guatemala's labor practices are already under review by the US Trade Representative's office. A decision to put Guatemala under a six-month review to test compliance with recent labor reforms was expected to be announced by the White House on June 1.

Given Serrano's suspension of the right of public protest and strikes, analysts expect US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to consider terminating Guatemala's trade benefits.

Last year, some $200 million worth of Guatemala-made products were exported to the US. Business organizations here say cutting off the GSP could cost Guatemala some 100,000 jobs.

It is not clear yet how Serrano's coup will affect plans for regional free trade pacts. And it's not clear that the business community feels strongly enough to pressure Serrano for a return to democratic rule.


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