IN THE 1970s Guatemala invented death squads. This was the oligarchy's and army's way of fighting guerrillas and their suspected civilian supporters. It worked in the sense that the revolution -- a characteristic Marxist Central American upheaval -- was reduced and forced underground. In the time thus bought, Vinicio Cerezo was elected president; many of us saw him as the sort of plucky democrat who could lead his country into the 20th century. While Nicaragua and El Salvador burned, Guatemala seemed to have survived the fire.

But we were wrong. The "dirty war" is blazing again in Guatemala. President Cerezo, whose five-year term is just ending, proved to be not just corruptible but inept in applying his considerable domestic and foreign support to keep the military at bay. Under the surface, it turned out, the old habits and institutions of repression were in only temporary remission. The guerrillas are not all that strong, but political killings now take place at a rate of better than a death a day. The security services have made Guatemala the worst human rights offender in all of Latin America.

Guatemalans are voting again -- by fair procedures, international monitors say. There is some celebration that power is being transferred from one elected civilian leader to another. But the power being transferred is thin and formal. The real power is not being transferred and remains outside political control. Many voters apparently want an "iron hand."

As far as most Americans are concerned, Central America pretty much disappeared behind the moon after the Nicaraguan elections. Guatemala itself was given over from the American political debate to the State Department bureaucracy some years ago. American officials have sought to encourage democracy, human rights and development with light applications of influence and aid. The evident disappointments in this policy are now giving rise to calls to diminish and condition the aid, especially on the military side.

Decades of unhappy American experience suggest the limitations on fine tuning Guatemalan responses. Jimmy Carter's example is instructive. In disgust at the savageries of the '70s, he cut off military aid; relieved of American restraint, the military went doubly berserk. Keeping a hand in and an eye on Guatemala may not be sufficient, but it can be useful. Surely sooner or later Guatemalans are going to realize they are missing out on the promise of the new day.