Guatemala's new leader Mejia: chip off the Rios Montt block?
At first glance, Guatemala's Brig. Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores - who seized power in a coup in August - seems to be steering his government along the same path as that of the man he deposed.
His administration lifted a military ''state of alert,'' as deposed President Efrain Rios Montt pledged to do. And General Mejia says he would in general continue reforms charted by his predecessor.
But some observers and allies of the ousted president say Mejia is beginning to bow to pressures from the extreme right. They foresee an era of rule that may become as repressive as that of Romeo Lucas Garcia.
Critics of the new leader say that while Mejia's military high command reaffirmed ''the decision to eradicate administrative corruption at all levels, '' one of his first moves was to scrap the public relations campaign against corruption started by Rios Montt.
''They took down all the blue-and-white campaign posters at the National Palace,'' says Harris Whitebeck, a former aide to Rios Montt. The posters bore the slogan, ''Do not steal, do not lie, do not abuse.''
In a controversial move, Mejia Victores also replaced the president of the State Council, Jorge Antonio Serrano Elias, who was appointed by Rios Montt.
An advisory body, the State Council was created by Rios Montt after he suspended the Constitution and abolished Congress. In one sense the council was considered progressive: Its seats were divided in a corporate fashion among the various sectors of society, with 20 seats going to Indian representatives. Inclusion of Indians was an unprecedented move here, since indigenous groups never before had a say in the country's affairs.
Since its foundation, the council has gained much influence, drafting several key law proposals - including new electoral laws.
Rios Montt's council head was dismissed, according to a government spokesman quoted in the daily Prensa Libre, over ''differences regarding changes to be made to the new electoral laws.''
But Serrano Elias says, and Indian representatives agree, that his dismissal followed a well-orchestrated slander campaign directed by the influential rightist National Liberation Movement, the political party of the landholding and business elite. They believe his removal may be a prelude to the dissolution of the council and a modification of the electoral laws to benefit the extreme right.
''President Serrano Elias is a very capable man without whom the important law proposals prepared by the council could not have been drawn up,'' says councilman Felix Sarazua Patzan, a representative of the Cakchiquel ethnic group. ''He is a man who believes that the country must be democratized.
''We know that his removal is the work of extreme-right groups, because they're the ones who have been attacking him - and the council - publicly.''
A government spokesman says there is no plan to dissolve the council, although he admits that President Mejia is examining petitions on this subject.
Elias Serrano believes the council will be dissolved in time.
''We've been doing too good a job. The fascist groups which got me removed want to weaken those who are struggling for democratization, change the electoral laws, and get back into power.
''Those who are speaking against the council are the same people who were in power under the Lucas Garcia regime.''
Guatemalans have been closely watching their president's actions regarding return to civilian rule as well. Mejia Victores had first promised to speed up voting. And until this week many thought he was dragging his heels on this pledge. But this week, government spokesmen said the date for national assembly elections would be announced next month.
Some political parties, however, complain that their members are being subjected to intimidation.
''Members of our party have been threatened by groups of armed men who ordered them to 'stay away from politics,' '' says Hector Ronaldo Villavicencio Calderon of the Organized Popular Force.
''It seems that the terror and threats that were the rule before the March coup by Rios Montt have started again.''