Guatemala: 1983 "MacNeil/Lehrer Report" on debate over military aid to Ríos Montt's regime

From the archives of the program that became PBS NewsHour, an archival episode from 1982 during the military dictatorship of José Efraín Ríos Montt. In this episode, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer report on political battles in Washington over the Reagan administration's funding and military aid to Guatemala, as violence and instability there continued and reports of atrocities in indigenous communities spread.

Today, May 10, 2013, I am blogging from a courtroom in Guatemala, where a verdict is due for the former head of state and his former head of intelligence. They are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

Watch the NewsHour piece I produced with Miles O'Brien about the trial.

Our coverage of the trial on Boing Boing is here.

As NewsHour's Jenny Marder explains,

During the production of the piece, we dug into the vault and found this dusty MacNeil/Lehrer Report video from Nov. 30, 1983, on the debate over the U.S. role in Guatemala. It was filmed just after the Reagan administration announced the end of a five-year embargo on military shipments to Guatemala, citing human rights progress and claiming that Ríos Montt had been given a "bum rap." You'll see in these interviews a split between U.S. administration officials and human rights organizations.

For example, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Eliott Abrams tells Jim Lehrer that political killings in Guatemala had reduced under the Rios Montt leadership, from hundreds a month to 40-50 a month and calls that "considerable progress."

"We're not suggesting the number of 40 or 50 a month is good, but it's a lot better," Abrams says. "And we think that kind of progress has to be rewarded and encouraged."

But human rights groups, which did not support the lifting of the embargo, along with some members of Congress told a different story: one of kidnappings, refugees and massacres by government forces.

This for example, came from Robert Goldman from Americas Watch Committee.

"Rios Montt is a dictator who came in with all these promises, and yet, what did he do?" Goldman says. "He abolished all press freedom. There's less press freedom now in Guatemala than there has been for the last 30 years. No political parties are allowed. No union activity. Search and seizure without warrants are conducted. A three-man military tribunal can sentence anybody to anything including death."


Guatemala coverage archives

• "I am innocent," Ríos Montt tells court in genocide trial, breaking silence
Ríos Montt trial enters final phase, 75 years sought for genocide, crimes against humanity
The science behind historic genocide trial of General Ríos Montt: PBS NewsHour video report
Guatemalan Government declares State of Siege after Mining Protests: PBS NewsHour video report
PBS NewsHour reporter's notebook: Guatemala—Why We Cannot Turn Away