Juan Guzmán Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Confronting Chile's History: Conversation with Juan Guzman, Chief Judge, Court of Appeals, Santiago, Chile; 4/17/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Chilean Law and Human Rights

I'd like to move our conversation to the discussion of human rights. You are the judge handling the Pinochet case. I would like to talk about it in a general way, and not in any way that interferes with your role in that proceeding. Help us understand what the difficulties are in a country coming to terms with its own history, and using the judicial process to do that.

It is a very heavy burden. I'll put it in images. I think you've read it, and if not, I'll tell it to you again in symbols. Today, I have this sensation of having been chained to a prison ball during three years; it's not easy at all. In a normal trial, or in a normal investigation, generally one person is the winning part, the other is the losing part. Here, in this trial, there was a moment where half of the Chileans were for it, and the other half against it -- let's say, perhaps, more than half for one side and less than half for the other.

We should explain to our audience that General Pinochet was the head of the country, he was head of the military coup that overthrew the Allende government. And so now, what you are saying is that the country has been divided about what price he should pay for whatever actions he took.

That's right. But let's do some history, and let's remember that it was a great part of the county that asked for the coup. You know, the people threw kernels of corn at the officers, generals, and colonels, and it was very offensive [because it was like calling them chickens]. Our armed forces until 1973 had always been very disciplined, very professional, and, I would say, among the best of our continent. So I think that in a way, when we see that so many things happened, so many sad things, I think that all of us have a great part of the responsibility. I am indicting, and I am trying some people who interfered in the facts. I don't want to say the word "crime," because I haven't determined that yet. So, let's say that there are so many people that took part in sad actions, but at the same time there was a great group of people, a big part of our society not wanting to know what was happening. Perhaps they knew; perhaps they didn't. I think most of the people knew something of what was happening. But on the other hand, it's not the army that was doing all that is being considered to be submitted to a trial today. It was certain people that belonged to the army, as well as many civilians.

So I consider that this investigation, and perhaps the trial that may begin, or the trials that may begin, because there are many issues, may imply a very good accomplishment for our country, because it's going to show the people that it's not the army that was against the country, that there were certain persons who committed crimes for some other reason, or followed orders, or gave orders that they shouldn't have given.

At the same time, by finding bodies of people that disappeared, there is a circle that concludes. You know, a relative dies, an older relative, that's what normal and natural. You have to have a funeral for him -- you have to bury him, you have to mourn him. And afterwards, you could, little by little, lose the sadness or diminish that sadness.

In the course of this great social and political conflict that your country experienced at the time of the coup, some people were eliminated. And so your reference is to the members of their families, needing, as all humans need, a conclusion to this trauma of not knowing what happened, and having that final determination.

That's right. Yes.

As you do this, it sounds to me that this ball that you're tied to is really the burden of history, because so many historical forces were at work at that particular time.

Yes, that's right. Well, there were and there are. I want to finish telling you something. That conclusion you speak about is very necessary. At the same time, there's another factor that's very important, and it is the factor that if certain people are indicted for certain crimes or misdemeanors -- I'm speaking in general -- it's normal that those people, or the others, will not want to follow them in the same experience. So as a trial, I think it's very necessary for history.

So that third parties will learn that there's a price to be paid if they engage in what is decided to be illegal acts.

That's right.

Let me summarize without putting words in your mouth. What you're saying is that you're in this unique, extraordinary position through the legal process, through this process that you just described for us, where you manage both a prosecution and a judgment, and you listen to the defense. You're trying to find the truth -- what actually happened, who did what, what happened to this person or that person -- but in order for the society to engage its own history and reach conclusions about what should and should not be done in the future.

That's right. And that's another thing that's very important. Through this trial, our people have realized the things that happened. Political Cartoon from Vea magazineThere are people that could have said, "Look, this was just the invention of communists." That has been a good excuse for a long time. But if you attend the hearings, if you see photographs, if people confess, if others testify and the declaration is convincing, the people start believing what really happened. It's a little bit of what happened during the Second World War against so many Jewish people, you know, it's the same.

... as what was does to them. But [the Holocaust] required the Nuremberg Trials, to reach the judgment about what happened.

That's right. I was going to go that route. And at the same time, to see all the evidence that there really is. We have seen so much evidence in the Museum of the Holocaust in Washington D.C., that today, nobody, nobody could really honestly deny what happened. Well, I think that's very important in this case also. I'm not speaking of a number. A number, I think, it's impossible. I think there has never, ever been something so cruel and so terrible.

As the Holocaust.

As the Holocaust, yes. Well, this was cruel, also.

What happened in Chile?

I believe so.

Yes. So as a professional judge, it's very important that this process of discovery, of gathering the facts, is done in such a way that what is discovered is legitimated so that it will not be a decision imposed from outside, but it's almost like a common process of education. "This is what happened to us as a country. This was, in a way, what we were complicit in. And this is a decision that we decide in light of that so it's not repeated in the future."

Yes, that's the idea, to be honest, with a fair trial regarding certain people, and showing our country what really happened, and that nobody is above the law, a very important issue.

Not even the political leaders of a country, or the military leaders.

Nobody at all.

Next page: Conclusion

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