Chilean Activist Judge to Speak at Commencement
Oberlin College has a long history of bringing internationally-recognized activists to campus as Commencement speakers, running the gamut from Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965 to Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1987. This year, the activist judge Juan Guzmán Tapia will join the list.
Guzmán was a judge in Chile throughout the violent military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Very few public officials dared to speak out against Pinochet’s regime and Guzmán was the first judge to agree to hear charges against the dictator.
While Pinochet was in power, Guzmán ruled on cases he recognized as human rights violations, going against colleagues that urged him to declare the rulings inadmissible. Even now, 16 years after Pinochet’s removal from power, Guzmán continues to charge him with crimes of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder.
“He did an amazing thing,” said College Secretary and Commencement Organizer Bob Haslun. “He is very Oberlin and has a great story to tell.”
While no one knows if Pinochet will ever stand trial in Chile, Guzmán’s work is seen as significant for its commitment to the law and to human rights. Guzmán is also praised for his public denouncement of Pinochet’s regime at a time when the majority of the judiciary refused to openly acknowledge his unlawful practices.
Haslun said that Guzmán was the first choice of the Honorary Degrees Committee, who select the commencment speaker and honorary degree recipients from a list of nominations submitted by seniors, faculty and administrators.
History Professor Steven Volk is responsible for Guzmán’s nomination.
“Guzmán occurred to me as the perfect kind of Commencement speaker,” Volk said. “He represents what Oberlin stands for. He even represents Oberlin’s motto ‘Think one person can change the world? So do we.’ It took one individual like him [to change the world].”
Volk emphasized how Guzmán’s work in Chile resonates today in the United States, which might contribute to a compelling speech.
“One of the most dreadful innovations of the Pinochet government was to disappear the bodies of people kidnapped and claim not to know anything about it,” Volk explained. “Guzmán was the first judge to use habeas corpus to force the Pinochet regime to produce the bodies before the court, and of course they could not. Today, the Bush administration is destroying habeas corpus by refusing to produce the bodies of political prisoners.
“If Guzmán could take a stand in dictatorship, then we can ask for no less in a democracy,” he said.
Volk may admire Guzmán objectively, but his respect for him also stems from personal experiences.
“I met him in 2003 when I was called to the courtroom to give a deposition in a case involving the death of my friends in Chile in 1973. I was appreciative of how he handled the situation,” Volk said. “We have become friends since then.”
Volk was part of the North American Information Source, or FIN. The eight-person group published articles in Chile about student movements and protests in the United States against the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy to inspire rebellion against Pinochet. As a result of these articles, two members of FIN, Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi, were arrested and killed by Pinochet’s military. Theirs was the case in which Volk testified.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened to them,” Volk said, citing the lack of eyewitnesses in Chile as a problem. But it is not the outcome of the trial that preoccupies him so much as the impact of Guzmán’s actions.
“It’s about making life better for people; we’re not
talking utopias here,” Volk said. “He risked a lot because he
thought what he was doing was the correct thing to do. It was what he had to