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Patricio Guzmán's search for the truth

Human Rights
Patricio Guzmán

© WENN Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Acclaimed for his epic film The Battle of Chile: the Fight of an Unarmed People, Patricio Guzmán has been recording the horrors of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship for more than three decades. This year, the documentary filmmaker won a Silver Bear for best screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival for The Pearl Button. In it, Guzmán delves into Chile’s dark past, weaving the history of the nation’s decimated indigenous people of Patagonia with that of the murder of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzmán also received the 2015 Outstanding Achievement Award at the Toronto Hot Docs Festival, where Roxana Olivera caught up with him.

How was The Battle for Chile born?

What was taking place [during the 1973 military coup that led to Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship] was so interesting that one felt the need to create a record of that unique phenomenon, of the hugely popular fervour and of the implacable rightwing, backed by the US, which wanted to destroy [President Salvador] Allende at any cost. How could one not film all that? So we did. Each day, we filmed each important event in a clear, conscious and rational manner. We filmed it all, every minute detail. Even though it was difficult to do so, what we filmed was sufficient to cover all important aspects of the evidence. And we spent an entire year secretly filming everything without telling anyone about it. Nothing. No press conferences or anything of that sort. We became anonymous entities so that no-one would bother us. That’s how we made the film.

When did you first find out that the CIA was involved in the military coup against Salvador Allende and that it had planted infiltrators at universities?

The first time was when a North American journalist reported that the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation in Chile was a net of CIA spies. This triggered an international scandal, and the cables that the spies had sent to Washington were subsequently published. That was towards the middle of 1971, when the entire world learned about all this.

But before then there was another warning sign, when Allende won the election and his presidency was to be ratified in Congress. During that period, the CIA was smuggling weapons, through the American Embassy in Chile, which ended up in the hands of a military unit and people working for the CIA. They assassinated the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, a democratic and constitutionalist man, who was not against Allende. He was instrumental in keeping the army away from the conspiracy, and for that reason they eliminated him. Attempts to block off Allende’s election failed, but, of course, he lost a key figure within the army. That was essentially the first time that the CIA acted in such an overtly partisan manner.

The third warning sign came during the latter part of 1973, when the rightwing Patria y Libertad party received funds in US dollars in order to carry out political attacks and acts of bribery. Truck drivers, for instance, received $2 a day – in brand new bills – to go on strike. Back then $2 was a lot of money on the black market.

Many people say it is time to turn the page and leave the past behind. Why is it important to remind people of what happened in Chile during that time?

Generally speaking, people who argue that it is time to turn the page belong to the rightwing. I believe that we ought to remember the past because it is fundamental to denouncing state-sponsored terrorism. State-sponsored terrorism cannot go unpunished, because it destroyed the Chilean Republic, a republic which had been built over the course of 200 years.

Using the pretext of sweeping away communism, they swept away everything: universities, unions, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, women’s rights, indigenous rights, and the like.

‘How long will it take for us to rebuild what we had? To me, the future is rooted in the past’

So you have to ask yourself: how long will it take for us to rebuild what we had? Because to me, the future is rooted in the past. That is, we had a liberal republic; we had a republic in which ideas would flow freely throughout the nation. All that suddenly came to an end. Forever. Because none of that has been restored. Today, we still have a large segment of the middle class which simply refuses to try to understand what happened in the country.

Little by little, we are getting closer to the true story of the coup and to the truth about those who participated in those atrocities, and who then fled Chile in order to evade justice...

That is typical of a regime in which there is impunity. Not long ago, it was discovered that an individual linked to torture was actually working for the Chilean department of justice within the current government. Someone found out about this man and he was immediately sacked. But up to that point he was working quite happily there.

The fact is that the military dictatorship could never have functioned without the support of the civilian population. The military were incapable of doing all those things alone, because, in general, they didn’t have the slightest idea about how to govern a country.

Civilian members of the rightwing did the work of organization on behalf of the military. Yet civilians have seldom been brought to justice.

Sole responsibility for all crimes committed during the Pinochet regime has fallen upon a handful of military personnel.

The statistics speak for themselves. Only 40 per cent of all cases involving human rights violations have been brought to justice. So you have to ask yourself: how is it possible that, after 40 years, 60 per cent of cases are yet to be brought to justice? To expect that 100 per cent be brought to justice is naturally unrealistic, but how about at least 80 per cent?

The daily El Mercurio newspaper took a strong stand against Allende. It fabricated as many lies as it wanted during the Pinochet era. It denied the existence of enforced disappearances. It denied the existence of torture. It denied everything. And yet today, El Mercurio claims to be a democratic newspaper. The question is: ‘Who has judged the reporters who defamed Allende, supported Pinochet and travelled to London to defend him?’ There they are.

So, if there is impunity at that level, what else can one expect from justice? Consider the case of the man who killed Víctor Jara [singer-songwriter and social activist arrested, tortured and killed by the military regime just after the 1973 coup]. When a group of youths discovered the whereabouts of the murderer, they went to his office and filmed him right then and there. When that took place, the man almost died of a heart attack on the spot...

So it will be interesting to see how The Pearl Button – in which I reconstruct in minute detail how the military went about throwing people, some still alive, from helicopters into the ocean – is received in Chile.

Roxana Olivera is an investigative journalist based in Toronto, Canada.

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