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Give Guatemala's Democracy a Boost

December 31, 2003

WASHINGTON - To the relief of the international community, Guatemalans inaugurate a new president today after resoundingly rejecting the candidacy of Efrain Rios Montt, a former dictator who literally razed much of the country in the early 1980s.

In looking to their future as a modern democracy - not their past as a polarized dictatorship, where human rights were routinely trampled - Guatemalans voted their hopes, not their fears. Now, with that bullet bitten, the United States has a perfect opportunity - an obligation, even - to help Guatemalans strengthen their democracy.

The elections are over, but the hardest part of democracy remains: building legitimacy by delivering opportunity for the majority of Guatemalans who have never had much promise of a better life. Increased trade and foreign investment are key, and the United States can most effectively assist by adopting the promised free trade agreement just concluded with Guatemala and its Central American neighbors.

It was only seven years ago that Guatemalans signed the peace accords ending 36 years of conflict and human rights atrocities. Since that time of great hope, national reconciliation stalled, corruption increased and the economy was kept afloat by some $600 million in annual remittances sent to relatives in $100 and $200 increments from the quarter-million Guatemalans living in the United States, over half of them illegally. Guatemala's outgoing president, Alfonso Portillo, was accused of using his position to seek gain for himself and his cronies. Bilateral relations with the United States deteriorated markedly.

The country was headed in the wrong direction, making possible a presidential candidacy such as Mr. Rios Montt's, until the Guatemalan people decided to dump the former dictator and elect Oscar Berger, a pro-business former mayor of Guatemala City. And Mr. Berger made a strong start even before the inauguration. He has reached out to the majority indigenous population, a community long separate and unequal, and has prioritized job creation and rural development while vowing to attack the corruption that Mr. Portillo allowed to flourish.

It is an agenda that the United States has advocated as the memory of a more violent era in Central America recedes. But we must do more than simply applaud from the sidelines. To prevent a future relapse, democracy must continue to be nurtured and partnership with regional neighbors solidified. Fortunately, we have a powerful means to this end: the free trade agreement signed in December.

Opponents of trade expansion cite Central America's inadequate social safety net and claim that this encourages exploitation. Indeed, Central Americans themselves agree that more can and should be done to improve social conditions in their countries.

Even so, the best social safety net is a job, whether in Guatemala or Honduras - or, for that matter, the United States. That's why so many Guatemalans have found their way to the United States, legally or not, and why the Bush administration's recent moves on immigration reform are as important to Guatemala and other Central American nations as they are to Mexico.

Without job creation, Guatemalans will eventually wonder what the big deal with democracy is all about, opening the door to alternative, regressive leaders as in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Therefore much is at stake as Congress soon begins the process of considering expanded trade with Central America. In recent years, the region has been a flashpoint; it has come a great distance, yet its future is not guaranteed. By electing Mr. Berger, Guatemalans voted for their future, not their past. Now is the time for the United States to come alongside Guatemalans and do the same.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, was a White House policy adviser from 1995 to 1998 and an observer at the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords in 1996.