Chilean Chronicles, Part 80: Meeting Juan Guzman

Judge Juan Guzman, left, at the showing of the documentary film, Los Muertos No Callan, in early September.

Judge Juan Guzman, left, at the showing of the documentary film, Los Muertos No Callan, in early September.

As he deliberated over what was arguably the most important decision of his professional life, Juan Guzman did not talk to any of his fellow judges.

To do so, he thought, would involve entering a world with all kinds of unequal levels of power and could contaminate his choice about whether to indict Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Instead he spoke with one of his daughters.

And he talked with his wife Ines Watine.

It was 2004.

The choice about whether the aging dictator, then nearly 90 years old, was fit to stand trial was a difficult one for Guzman for two primary reasons.

The first was that he had a report from a psychiatrist that stated Pinochet had performed well enough on 15 criteria of mental acuity to be categorized as mentally intact, and therefore able to stand trial.

But the report from a neurologist said exactly the opposite, stating that Pinochet had suffered too much mental deterioration to be involved in legal proceedings.

The other level was more personal and more complicated for Guzman.

He felt compassion for Pinochet.

In him, he did not see the brutal military leader who had led the overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected government and overseen 17 years of torture, terror, disappearances and murder.

Instead he saw an elderly man nearing death whose physical and mental failings reminded him of his father.

Guzman spoke with his wife, the daughter of a World War II French resistance fighter.

She asked him two critical questions.

Would you have had compassion for Hitler during World War II?

Of course not, he answered about Germany’s genocidal leader.

Would you have had compassion for Stalin during World War II?

Even more I would not, he said, thinking about the 20 million people Stalin had been responsible for killing.

Guzman’s conflict receded.

He knew what he had to do.

Guzman told Dunreith and me this story toward the end of an interview in the law office near presidential palace La Moneda where he is working.

I had first seen the judge, who is tall and bearded and soft-spoken and gentle and respectful and impressively energetic for a man of 74 years of age, in Patricio Lanfranco’s film, The Judge and The General, shortly before we traveled to Chile.

The movie traces Guzman’s odyssey as he moved from a sheltered, right-wing cocoon to becoming an powerful instrument of justice.

I had seen him at a showing in the basement of the Providencia Library at Cafe of Los Muertos No Callan, or The Dead Are Not Silent.

It’s a German documentary film about the Pinochet regime’s torture and murder of former high-ranking Allende officials like Jose Toha and Orlando Letelier.

Letelier’s widow Isabel was in the room that evening.

Guzman paid elegant homage to the courage she, the other widows in the film and so many women had displayed during and after the dictatorship.

After that session I had approached the judge and asked for his contact information.

A half-dozen emails and about a month later, Dunreith and I were sitting across a long, wooden table from him in the late afternoon.

The son of Juan Guzman, a diplomat and famed poet, Guzman told us about how he grew up in an unreflecting conservative environment. He attended tony St. George’s College and the Catholic Unveristy before beginning his legal career.

In those times, he was mostly concerned with his professional advancement-an orientation that he said revealed his right-wing oriented.

Infused with the political ideals of his family, he saw the Pinochet coup as necessary, but did not anticipate the barbarity the leader and his minions would inflict on the people.

Guzman made it clear that never attended a political demonstration, as to do so would violate his code as a judge.

Then the notice of his assignment to the Pinochet case came.

Judge Guzman didn’t describe the room or the date in great detail.

But he did say he understood immediately what It meant, how it would become totally consuming.

He couldn’t hear anything else his superior said.

Lanfranco’s film shows what he did, how he ventured from the seclusion and went around the country.

But it doesn’t show everything.

It doesn’t show all of the death threats and the political pressure he endured during the years he made his lonely journey.

He didn’t feel fear in a personal sense, he told us, because he thought of himself like a soldier in a cause.

But he did worry about his family.

Of course, the film does not depict doesn’t show what he’s done since the case.

It doesn’t inform the viewer that the one-time unreflecting right winger has gone on to defend Mapuche people accused of terrorism.

Guzman’s decision to indict Pinochet did not ultimately land the dictator in prison.

Not even for a single day.

It did not narrow the chasm between the classes or end the racism and prejudice here in Chile that he said are the cause of so much indignation.

Nor did it heal all of the wounds caused by the dicatorship’s bloody reign.

But he did, in the moment that he had been called, respond in a way far greater than anyone had expected.

He allowed himself to leave his comfortable cocoon and to confront the fact that systematic atrocities took place.

He did find within himself the courage and the strength to defy the expectations of those who had appointed him to the task, to defy the political pressure and threats, and to not only go after the generals, but to go after the leader himself.

The judge said he could talk for days-a signal that indeed it was time for us to go.

I said I’d be willing to listen.

Before we left, I told him that I had also learned to listen to my wife, and that good things happened when I did.

We all laughed.

And as we departed, we had a sense that had shared something special.

Journalistic legend and Chilean trailblazer John Dinges had told me about the film based on Guzman’s life and evolution before we came here in mid-July

When Dunreith watched it, I didn’t dream that I would ever meet, let alone interview, the man.

But now I have.

The Metro was packed to the gills on the way home.

The light had not descended from the sky.


2 responses to “Chilean Chronicles, Part 80: Meeting Juan Guzman

  1. Wow, Jeff. Another close encounter with history and a history maker. You are digging deep, my friend, and the rest of us are more knowledgable as a result. BTW, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

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