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  • Thwarting the Guatemalan Coup
  • Francisco Villagrán de León (bio)

When President Jorge Serrano suspended Guatemala's constitution, dissolved Congress, and dismissed the courts on 25 May 1993, he must have expected public frustration with Congress, the 30-year-old leftist insurgency, and the generally poor social conditions to translate into overwhelming popular support for his actions. In all likelihood, he was hoping to pull off a presidential autogolpe similar to the one that Alberto Fujimori had accomplished in Peru a year earlier.

What Serrano experienced instead was, fortunately, something quite unexpected. After an initial 48 hours of shocked paralysis, the groups and institutions that make up Guatemalan civil society began to mobilize, disjointedly at first, but more and more efficiently as time went on. In less than two weeks, the coup was reversed. Through the efforts of its civil society, and with critical international support, Guatemala turned what threatened to be another setback for Latin American democracy into an impressive victory for democratic rule.

A look at how this occurred provides insight into the depth of democratic commitment among the large sectors of civil society that [End Page 117] firmly refused any return to the authoritarian past. It also underlines the importance of the principle of constitutionality as a rallying point for different social sectors and as the political-philosophical beacon that lit the way to a peaceful and legitimate resolution of the crisis.

Only President Serrano himself knows why he thought he could succeed in such a radical course of action. There had been earlier signs that he was tempted by the idea of dictatorial rule. He had complained bitterly about a hostile press and had threatened on more than one occasion to place curbs on freedom of speech. He had repeatedly attacked congressional gridlock and had criticized the business community and other sectors for their lack of support and understanding. In the months leading up to the coup, Serrano had increasingly isolated himself from contacts with those sectors, as well as from many of his personal friends and political allies.

On the international front, Serrano and his representatives had maintained a distinctly low profile during the constitutional crises in Haiti and Peru, declining to join in denunciations and calls for strong collective action. In addition, Serrano was the only Latin American leader to offer public support to Venezuela's President Carlos Andrés Pérez during his agonizing fall from power.

But if Serrano had been flirting with the idea of dictatorship for at least a year, why did he choose May 25 to make his dictatorial gamble? His party had made a solid showing in municipal elections earlier that month—although in the context of record-low voter turnout—and he may have felt a newfound confidence. At the time, he faced tough upcoming negotiations with Congress over a budget increase for the Supreme Court and a new energy tax bill—negotiations that would require even greater illegal payoffs than were already standard. During the previous week, there had been student demonstrations in which a demonstrator was shot and killed in front of Congress, apparently by a congressman's bodyguard. In addition, word had gotten out that charges of Serrano's own corruption—which apparently exceeded that of any of his predecessors—were going to be investigated by the auditor general's office. Finally, in mid-May Serrano had privately expressed frustration with Guatemala's stagnating peace talks, and had said he was looking for a way to back out of them. He may have seen the coup as a way to put the peace talks on the back burner, as well as to regain his standing with Guatemala's military.

All these developments were symptoms of an overall crisis of governance, brought on by Serrano's autocratic leadership style and his inability to use negotiation and compromise to build consensus around his policies. During the past year, his administration had been drifting from crisis to crisis, wrangling with important groups ranging from human rights and labor organizations to the business community, professional groups (such as the bar association), and the media. Serrano [End Page 118] managed to avert the collapse of his administration only...


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