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Turmoil in Guatemala brings snap Belize poll: Former British colony fears revival of territorial claim by generals

THE government of the former British colony of Belize has called a snap election for 30 June to seek a new mandate in view of events in neighbouring Guatemala, where the armed forces have deposed President Jorge Serrano a week after he declared emergency rule.

Guatemala only recently dropped a territorial claim to Belize. 'We are always concerned when the Guatemalan military are in the ascendancy,' the Belize High Commissioner in London, Robert Leslie, said yesterday. 'It would be easy for them to revive their claim as a way to buy popularity, as they have in the past. This underlines the need for long-term assurances about our security, particularly from Britain.'

But Britain announced recently that the garrison it has maintained in Belize since independence in 1981 is to be withdrawn by next year. The last of four Harrier jump jets is due to leave next month.

The Guatemalan turmoil shows how fragile democratic institutions still are in parts of Latin America, despite progress made since the 'lost decade' of the 1980s, when debt and dictatorship isolated it from the rest of the world.

Many Latin American countries have now achieved 'middle-income' status under elected civilian governments pursuing free-market policies. Foreign capital has flooded in. As Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told business leaders in London last week, countries such as Argentina, Chile and Colombia are a considerably more attractive proposition for private investors than Eastern Europe. Chile, with a growth rate of 10.6 per cent last year, is one of the world's economic success stories.

But there is a darker side to this picture, and not just in Guatemala. President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela survived two military coup attempts last year, only to face impeachment now on corruption charges. His Brazilian counterpart, Fernando Collor de Mello, suffered a similar fate last year.

In Peru last year President Alberto Fujimori succeeded in doing what Guatemala's Jorge Serrano signally failed to pull off: dispense with the trappings of representative democracy and ride the military tiger to personal power. Mr Fujimori found that constitutional rule can mean a tiresome and obstructive opposition that interferes with the tackling of urgent problems.

Even the most enthusiastic supporters of economic liberalism now accept that urgent attention must be given to social problems such as poverty and unemployment if Latin America's experiment with democracy is not to prove short-lived. Mr Serrano, backed by the armed forces, was spurred to act by the growing disorder caused by trade unions and students protesting at economic austerity policies.

The Guatemalan generals are unlikely to opt for direct military rule this time, preferring to remain in the background. Mr Serrano was a useful front-man, and many officers wanted him to stay on - only unanimous domestic opposition and pressure from the US persuaded them that the President had outlived his usefulness.

(Photograph omitted)