Guatemala City. -- Unless they are reined in quickly, the anti-democratic demons unleashed by President Jorge Serrano's pre-dawn "self-coup" could spread out quickly to the rest of Central and Latin America.
Clearly inspired by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's successful "self-coup" last year, Mr. Serrano's action will be closely watched by military and civilian authorities elsewhere on the continent. If it holds, they easily could see it as an acceptable model for bloodlessly suppressing growing discontent at a time when Latin America is considered one of the hottest economic regions in the world.
Because of its potential spill-over effect, Mr. Serrano's suspension of key constitutional rights and the dissolution of Congress also confront the Clinton administration with its first Latin American challenge. "If I were in Washington, I'd be asking myself now, 'How does this look from Mexico City or San Salvador?' " said one long-time U.S. expert on Guatemala.
For analysts struggling to determine why Mr. Serrano chose this moment to stage the coup, the answers are several:
* Mr. Serrano was facing increasing calls for investigation of his personal finances and accumulation of real estate since he took office two years ago. Like Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez and recently-impeached Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, Mr. Serrano could have found his position imperiled by an unraveling corruption scandal.
* Mr. Serrano was under growing pressure from the army to show a strong fist even as the army was being pressured to negotiate a peace treaty with guerrillas it had defeated militarily; recent court cases which for the first time found military officers guilty of murdering civilians; and mounting opposition in the countryside to forced conscription and service in paramilitary patrols.
* Mr. Serrano and the military were both stunned by the intensity of resistance to recent decisions to raise electricity prices and issue a national student identity card. In protests last week, thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets in small but provocative anti-government demonstrations, thereby underscoring a deeper public distrust of Mr. Serrano's government.
Mr. Serrano is banking on public support for the coup with a cap on electricity prices for the poorest users and pledges to guarantee funds to public hospitals. "We're in favor of him in this path," said Rina Reyes, 45, a maid who makes $45 a month and recently paid $16 for electricity. She expects her post-coup light bills to run under $5.
Citizens unanimously agree with Mr. Serrano's condemnation of most congressmen and his frustration with the judicial system -- which he also disbanded. "But did he have to suspend the constitution to do it?" wondered a parking lot attendant uneasily in a typical reaction. Others responded more fiercely.
"He has betrayed the country, because it is he who is supposed to be guaranteeing the norms of the constitution, and here he is suspending them," said high school physics teacher Carlos Gomez, 46, a union activist who was among leaders of the recent anti-government demonstrations.
Suspension of "norms" now permits media censorship; unannounced searches of homes and offices; and a ban on political activity, meetings, demonstrations and strikes by government workers.
As he spoke, Mr. Gomez waved a government press release accusing him of criminality for his role in protests, a charge that becomes more ominous in the context of the suspension of rights, a telephoned death threat and the virtual dissolution of the government's human rights ombudsman's office.
Along with renewed militancy from labor activists such as Mr. Gomez, recent years have also seen a quiet resurrection of organizing in the Indian-dominated countryside. Now that activism, too, is threatened.
"I fear most for the countryside, for the peasants and their leaders," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. Ms. Menchu, who has lived the past decade in exile, was in the country attending a summit of international indigenous leaders preparing for a United Nations human rights conference scheduled for Vienna in June. Calling on the international community to "help us keep open the spaces we have gained," Ms. Menchu looked shell-shocked as she rushed from one embassy to another seeking security guarantees for her conference delegates.
For Guatemalans, the immediate reason for the coup is less important than the obvious failure, after eight years of civilian rule, of democracy to take root. The causes of the violence which wracked the region in the 1980s (some 100,000 have died in Guatemala's 30-year civil war) have yet to be resolved, despite internationally-monitored peace processes and elections of civilian presidents.
"Any democracy which did not attack the inviolability of the military, the extreme differences in distribution of land, and increasing -- not decreasing -- economic inequality, could not stand up to the test of time," said Canadian historian Jim Handy, who has written widely on the country for 17 years.
While the military has declared it had no part in the coup -- and its presence on the streets, where citizens go about their business much as usual, is minimal -- Ministry of Defense spokesman Captain Julio Alberto Yon Rivera made it clear he and others see President Serrano's actions as a kind of pre-emptive strike against those they believe would subvert the democratic process.
"We can speak of this as preventive, not curative medicine, and preventive medicine is cheaper and better, " said Captain Yon.
Mary Jo McConahay, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, has reported from Central America since 1984.