Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías

Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías (born 1945) was president of Guatemala from 1991 to 1993, the first active Protestant to be elected president of a Latin American nation. He continued civilian rule of the country amid growing economic and political problems until the military removed him from office on June 1, 1993.

Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías was born in Guatemala City in 1945. He graduated from the University of San Carlos of Guatemala in industrial engineering and then earned a graduate degree in economic development at Stanford University.

A prosperous Guatemalan businessman, Serrano Elías was an active Roman Catholic until 1975, when he became a "reborn" evangelical Baptist. He joined the U.S.-based Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship and later the Pentecostal Church of the Word, headed in Guatemala by retired general Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt had seized power in Guatemala in March 1982 and ruled until another coup ousted him in August 1983.

Through a family tie with an elder in the church, Serrano Elías became an advisor to President Ríos Montt and served as president of his Council of State. He differed with the general on some issues, however, and Serrano Elías's own presidential ambition strained relations between the two. Thus, Serrano Elías joined the Pentecostal Elim Church, where he held the title of "Prophet." That church's preference for General Ríos Montt as a presidential candidate led Serrano Elías to join El Shaddai, an upper-class Protestant congregation formed by a U.S. missionary following the 1976 earthquake. Linked to a California sect by satellite television transmissions, the central feature of Shaddai was its obsession with demons it associated with Guatemala's pre-Columbian Mayan heritage.

When the army decided in 1984 to allow free elections, Serrano Elías formed the Solidary Action Movement (MAS). He was MAS' candidate in the 1985 presidential campaign, in which he placed third among eight candidates. He again was a candidate in a large field in the 1989 election, but most of the evangelical churches favored the candidacy of Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt led the polls during this campaign. Six weeks before the election Serrano Elías had only 2 percent of the vote. The 1985 constitution forbade anyone from holding public office who had led a military revolt, however, and two weeks before the November 11 election the Court of Constitutionality disqualified Ríos Montt.

Serrano Elías's support immediately soared. His anti-politician rhetoric gained Catholic as well as Protestant support. Although some Catholics campaigned against him on religious grounds, calling him the Antichrist, religion was not the deciding element. Continued political turmoil, economic decline, and charges of corruption against the Christian Democratic (PDC) government of Mario Vinicio Cerezo had brought the authoritarian Ríos Montt considerable support, which Serrano Elías now inherited. Serrano Elías took 24.1 percent of the votes, a close second to Jorge Carpio Nicolle of the National Centrist Union (UCN), who garnered only 25.7 percent. In the runoff on January 6, 1991, Serrano Elías won 68 percent of the vote and became the first active Protestant to win election as president of a Latin American nation. His inauguration on January 14, 1991 was the first transfer of power from one elected civilian president to another in Guatemalan history. Abstention of the electorate was alarmingly high, however, as Guatemalans were losing faith in the democratic process. Only 44 percent of registered voters participated in the November 1990 elections and only 30 percent voted in the January 1991 runoff. Serrano Elías thus won with only about 20 percent of eligible voters. He also came to power with little support in Congress, his MAS party holding only 18 of the 116 seats in Congress.

In his inaugural address Serrano Elías called for a Social Pact" among business, labor, and popular organizations, but he did not mention Guatemala's Mayan majority. His government was neoliberal and private-sector oriented. He sought to downsize government, increase exports of non-traditional products, promote maquiladora assembly production, and privatize government-owned enterprises. He was strongly influenced by the Guatemalan Research and Social Studies Association (ASIES) and the United States Agency for International Development (AID), which encouraged ending the import substitution approach of the 1960s and 1970s in order to create economies friendlier to U.S. imports and investment. As elsewhere in Central America, there was much talk of structural adjustments. Serrano Elías skillfully formed an alliance in Congress between his own MAS, the PDC, and the UCN, and during his first year in office he made some progress in stabilizing the economy.

Serrano Elías joined other Central American leaders in attempting to revitalize Central American economic integration. Agreements of April 23 and May 14, 1993 (the Guatemala Protocol), reduced tariffs and modified the 1960 Central American Economic Integration Treaty (SIECA), moving the Central American Common Market away from import substitution toward an open economy in which labor, capital, and goods could move freely throughout the isthmus. Serrano Elías also worked toward settling the historic Guatemalan-Belize dispute. His recognition of Belizean sovereignty in September 1991, ratified by Congress in November 1992, was unpopular, however, among Guatemalan nationalists, who challenged it in the courts.

Flagrant abuse of human rights under Serrano continued, related to the continuing civil war against leftist guerrillas. Many labor leaders, intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists remained in exile. Before taking office, as leader of the National Reconciliation Commission Serrano Elías had initiated talks with the guerrillas. Extended talks between his government and the guerrillas' Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG), however, failed to reach a lasting agreement. Serrano Elías defended the military and absolutely refused to agree to investigation of past human rights abuses as a condition for an agreement.

Charges of corruption and maladministration of justice added to Serrano Elías's difficulties. In September 1992 his support of a plan, in league with Panamanian interests, to establish a casino and race track at the old hippodrome was especially damaging. Serrano Elías's ownership of thoroughbred race horses and polo ponies and links of the casino deal to drug trafficking interests, which had also grown rapidly in Guatemala during his administration, discredited Serrano Elías and undermined his ability to govern.

In May 1993, rising unrest characterized by student riots, public employee strikes, guerrilla activity, and ordinary crime precipitated a political crisis. Although Serrano Elías's MAS party had made small gains in Congress and in controlling of municipal governments, public confidence in his administration had declined and he had lost significant business support because of the secretive and unclear way he had handled privatization. On May 25, 1993, Serrano Elías suspended constitutional guarantees and dissolved the Congress and the Supreme Court. Although the military supported this action, other elements of the country protested. The human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, ceased his activities and the Court of Constitutionality declared Serrano Elías's act unconstitutional. A private National Consensus Forum and a group headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberto Menchú petitioned for restoration of constitutional order. Small but noisy street demonstrations erupted. The URNG suspended the peace negotiations. An international protest joined the domestic opposition. The United States froze all economic aid and threatened to remove trade privileges it had extended to Guatemala. The European Community also suspended aid. Then the military reversed its position and forced Serrano Elías to resign on June 1, 1993. He fled to El Salvador, subsequently settling in Panama. On June 5, 1993 the Guatemalan Congress, now reconvened, elected Ramiro de León Carpio as the new president.

Serrano Elías remained in Panama. On July 16, a Guatemalan judge ruled that the government had no legal standing to extradite Serrano Elías. de León subsequently withdrew the Guatemalan ambassador in Panama, Juan Delpree, in an effort to force the extradition of Serrano Elías.

Serrano Elías's election in 1991 raised predictions the demise of the Catholic Church as a force in Guatemalan politics and throughout Latin America. His ouster revived misgivings about the role of evengelicals in high elected office.

Further Reading on Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías

For a detailed overview of recent Guatemalan political history, see James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus, A Political History of Modern Central America (London, 1988). Some detail on Serrano Elías's presidential administration may be found in Howard H. Lentner, State Formation in Central America: The Struggle for Autonomy, Development, and Democracy (1993). For current development in Guatemala, see Inforpress Centroamericana (Guatemala), or its condensed English-language weekly, Central America Report (Guatemala). For an excellent summary and analysis of Serrano Elías's religious background see David Stoll, "Guatemala Elects a Born-Again President," Christian Century (February 20, 1991). For a perceptive description of Guatemala prior to and during the administration of Serrano Elías see Víctor Perrera, Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (1993). For an assessment of the impact of Serrano Elías's demise on the role of evangelicals in Guatemalan government, see Stephen Sywulka, "Evangelical president ousted in power struggle," Christianity Today (July 19, 1993).