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31 January 2000

Pinochet and Pygmalion in the park

In Chile, the judge who will decide the fate of the country's former dictator bumps into Stephen Smi

By Stephen Smith

The man at the centre of the Pinochet affair has a crush on an Englishwoman who became famous after disguising her origins with elocution lessons. I’m referring to Judge Juan Guzman, who is responsible for trying the former Chilean dictator in his homeland. Judge Guzman told me that his favourite author was George Bernard Shaw – or, to use his exact phrase, “GBS”. The judge was sitting on a park bench in Santiago. He said, “I am a very ordinary man”, as Henry Higgins said. In fact, to quote Higgins again – this time on Eliza Doolittle, the object of the judge’s admiration – Judge Guzman is remarkable.

Take our interview itself. It came about following a phone conversation with Guzman, who was at the races in Santiago during an interminable presidential election. The first round of voting having ended in a tie, the small print of the constitution tiresomely required a further ballot. Over the murmur of voices and tinkle of drinks in the Moorish grandstand, the judge explained that he couldn’t be seen to be making himself available to the media – the British media least of all, he might have added. But if I happened to be taking the air on a certain corner in the neighbourhood of Providencia the following morning, then the judge and I might find it very difficult to avoid bumping into one another.

Sure enough, as I was studying a bust in the gardens of the cultural institute, a car drew up and a bald-headed figure in a navy suit approached me: “That’s my Dad,” he told me. “He was a writer.”

Perhaps it was a comfort to Judge Guzman to see his late father’s face. His task is a lonely one. There is a family somewhere, though the judge preferred not to talk about them, and a commissario, a police bodyguard, in constant attendance. Guzman isn’t living in a safe house, exactly, but submitting himself to a kind of purdah, an extraordinary demonstration of his impartiality. By his own estimation, his task divides Chile utterly: half of the people are impatient to see Pinochet in court on human rights charges; the other half are trusting that the saviour of the nation will be allowed to spend whatever time is left to him in his fortified place in the sun on the outskirts of Santiago.

“This is a heavy burden,” said the judge ruefully. “I was chosen to instruct in this case through chance. As in, you know, bingo.”

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At the last count, there were more than 50 indictments outstanding against the former commander-in-chief. They arise out of the killing, torture and disappearance of 3,000 Chileans after the coup of 1973. It rests with Judge Guzman to petition the court of appeal to remove Pinochet’s legal immunity, famously part of the golden parachute on which he insisted before he quit as dictator. The judge said he couldn’t confirm that such a move would in fact be his preferred course of action – though he said it in such a way that it left you thinking that it was. Pinochet’s immunity would then be in the hands of the 25 members of the court, a number of whom owe their position to the old man.

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I said: “Some people have said the best thing for Chile would be to forgive and forget. I’m a person who believes in forgetting many things. But there are the families of the victims and they can’t forget. I think people have the right to judge Pinochet.”

Guzman found out that my father came from Liverpool. “Liverpool! My father was consul there . . . I very much enjoy sailing,” he said. Anything to take his mind off his burden. “At a certain moment, I will be alone to make my decisions. At that time, I will have to look into my conscience and act according to that.”

In his despatches from Vietnam, James Fenton wrote about the crepuscular nature of life there during the war. Things happened after dark – not good things, it was clear; you had to be off the road by dusk. The thought came back to me in the incongruously prosperous surroundings of Las Condes. The novelist Antonio Skarmeta, whose book inspired the Oscar-winning Il Postino, has settled in the upscale suburb after spending the Pinochet years in a kind of voluntary exile in Europe. “The Germans used to say to me: ‘But you have a free press in Chile! How can this be a dictatorship?’ I told them: ‘Yes, we have a free press during the day, but at night . . .’ ” and Skarmeta mimed spraying his lawn with gunfire.

He was in high spirits, and served me a very drinkable Chilean champagne. The toast was to a new book in the shops and to what Skarmeta predicted would be electoral success for the socialist candidate for president, Ricardo Lagos. Skarmeta’s best-known work is a fictionalised account of the last years of Pablo Neruda. The poet was honoured by Chile as a senator, only to fall out of favour with the government. Pinochet was in Skarmeta’s mind as he wrote the book, he told me, and its plot to some extent anticipates the fate of the former dictator.

The national stadium in Santiago, which was a prison camp during the dictatorship, and the scene of crepuscular abominations, had been turned into a polling station. A woman was taking ballot papers from a pile and opening them as though she were shelling peas. This was for the benefit of a crowd – democracy being done and being seen to be done. Like the invigilator, the onlookers were female. A platoon of fresh-faced carabineros was on hand to see order, but their dark-red berets stirred unwelcome memories for the women. They chanted at the troops to go away.

The election results began to come through at dusk. It was the socialist victory that Skarmeta had forecast, but by a margin of less than 3 per cent. The right-wing candidate, Joaquin Lavin, who once gave economics advice to Pinochet, embraced Lagos, the president-elect, and Santiago embarked on a great, good-natured street party. I ran into a former interior minister to Pinochet, a short man in impeccable tailoring. I had first encountered him a few days earlier, when he had invited me to play golf.

“This result means that the government will have to listen to the people,” said the former minister. He had a habit of rubbing his palms together when he was talking. “They will have to see to the people’s problems and not put politics in front of this.”

I retired with this warning ringing in my ears. Like everyone else, I wondered if the night would pass peacefully, whether the crepuscular Chile would move against a left-wing president-to-be.

But I woke to find people pleased with the most mundane of things on the morning after an election – that everyone was around to see it.

At the time of writing, Senator Pinochet’s travel plans remain unclear. The British press are undergoing their own form of house arrest in the congenial surroundings of a hotel across the Plaza de la Constitucion from the presidential palace. There have been suggestions of killing a few days by going into the rainforest to do a story on pygmy tribesmen.

On these soporific afternoons of high summer in Santiago, I daydream that I am Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, who went trekking through the South American interior in search of the remote Pie-wie Indians, but was doomed to read Dickens to the lonely Mr Todd – except that in my reverie, I am reciting chunks of GBS to Judge Juan Guzman.

Stephen Smith works for “Channel 4 News”. His book on Colombia, “Cocaine Train”, is published by Little, Brown