GUATEMALA CITY - As Guatemala's prosecutor for human rights, a kind of ombudsman, Ramiro de Leon Carpio had popularity and prestige. But he never dreant he would wind up as president of his country. As it happened, he had to risk his life on the way and his defiance helped lead his country back to democracy.
Squeezing in an interview in the back of his presidential Mercedes, the President said Guatemala needed a government of national unity and reconciliation during the two and a half years that he will be at the helm. 'The aim is to consolidate our democracy. We have to avoid revenge,' he said.
Mr de Leon Carpio was sworn in on Sunday after a crisis that began last month when the then president, Jorge Serrano, suspended the constitution in an attempt to impose one-man rule in what became known locally as an autogolpe (auto-coup).
The vice-president, Gustavo Espina, then tried to take over, with military backing, but the Congress refused to swear him in. Mr de Leon Carpio, who was put under house arrest after Mr Serrano declared emergency rule but managed to escape, was eventually called upon after growing public protests.
Speaking after his first important decision - replacing the defence minister, General Jose Domingo Garcia Samayoa, in a reshuffle of the senior military command - Mr de Leon Carpio said: 'It's very clear. The army must carry out its functions professionally, within the constitution. The army must contribute to the peace, liberty and justice that Guatemalans demand.
'It is true that there must be more civil power but we can't talk of demilitarisation when there is still an internal (guerrilla) war. We cannot ask the army to reduce its budget or manpower when it has to carry out its mission against subversion.'
He admitted he was in 'disagreement' with Guatemala's Nobel peace prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, over his desire to give the army a role in the shift to democracy, but that most of their views coincided. 'I think we can count on her support,' he said.
Asked for his reaction to the public clamour here for punishment of those who backed the 'auto-coup' attempt, he replied: 'It's not my mission to punish anyone. My task is to attain stability and not contribute to the opposite by actions, attitudes or speeches that could provoke violence. We have to avoid revenge. Guatemala needs national reconciliation . . . Guatemala has an incipient democratic system, still fragile, in transition to full liberty. My function is to consolidate democracy and serve as a catalyst for national unity.
'We are a people that has scarcely experienced democracy. It has arrived overnight, without us having the culture or education that goes with it. Couple that with the terrible violence rooted in this country and you see there is a lack of political consciousness. But we will come out ahead.'
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