Orlando Letelier, (April 13, 1932 – September 21, 1976)
When most people in the United States speak of international terrorism that has taken place on our soil, the immediate response is to talk of September 11, 2001. Though I worked in the World Trade Center, and was devastated at the time, that was not my first experience with terror. September 11 already had meaning for me, since it was the date in which a bloody fascist coup took place in Chile.
Those of us here who followed Latin American politics closely and who had Chilean friends who were part of the Allende movement, watched in horror as word leaked out about the rampage of killing and torture taking place on that "other September 11" in 1973.
That was the date of the military coup "led by General Augusto Pinochet. The violent overthrow of the democratically-elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende changed the course of the country that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described as "a long petal of sea, wine and snow"; because of CIA covert intervention in Chile, and the repressive character of General Pinochet's rule, the coup became the most notorious military takeover in the annals of Latin American history."
Join me below the fold for more.
(January 10, 1951 - September 21, 1976)
Those who escaped being massacred, disappeared, or tortured
in Chile became part of a global resistance and protest movement. One major center of that resistance was the Chilean ex-pat community in Washington, D.C., home to former members of the Allende regime and their families.
I was living in D.C. in the mid-'70s, working on building a Pacifica radio station, WPFW-FM. Pacifica already had a Washington News Bureau there, and the bureau head was a Chilean-American, Paz Cohen. One of the volunteers at the bureau, who was helping to build the new station was José, a young Chilean, son of the former ambassador to the U.S., Orlando Letelier, one of the most vocal and visible leaders of the resistance.
On the morning of September 21, 1976, Pacifica staff and volunteers were already at work. Paz had planned to catch a ride into downtown from Adams Morgan, with her friend Orlando, but stayed home with a head cold.
At 9:35 AM the car, driven by Orlando Letelier, carrying his co-worker Ronni Moffitt and her husband, Michael, blew up at Sheridan Circle, in the city's Embassy Row. Orlando and Ronni were killed, and Michael was injured. It was a political assassination.
We got the news right away and listened in pain, horror and disbelief. The rest is part of history, a history with a story that continues up to this day and beyond.
On September 10, 1976, Orlando Letelier gave a speech at New York's Felt Forum, at a benefit concert for "The Restoration of Human rights in Chile," headlined by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and the Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) group, Aparcoa.
The concert was held on the same day Letelier was stripped of his Chilean citizenship, which he wrote about in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that was published after his death: A Testament:
WASHINGTON - On Sep. 10 the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet issued Decree No. 588, which strips me of my nationality, for gravely threatening the essential interests of the state. This measure is just one more addition to the shameful history of the violation of human rights committed by the military junta.
In the chronicle of Latin American dictatorships, political rights have frequently been denied to critics and opponents. The Chilean junta, not to be outdone as leader in the field of such violations, has made the entire Chilean population a victim through a decree that ordered the burning of the country's electoral register. In fact, all the citizenship rights of the population have been destroyed. Today, having exhausted this repressive mechanism they can only resort to the absurdity of pretending that those who oppose their designs are no longer part of the Chilean nation.
Needless to say, this decree violates the intent of the Constitution that applied in Chile before the rule of law was destroyed there on Sept. 11, 1973, together with the norms of international law, especially Article 15 of the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. This section has no precedent in our history. Never have governments vested themselves with the authority to confer or take away Chilean nationality at will.
In his remarks at the Felt Forum
, Letelier made it clear that although the fascists in Chile could pass decrees—he was Chilean:
Today Pinochet has signed a decree in which it is said that I am deprived of my nationality. This is an important day for me. A dramatic day in my life in which the action of the fascist generals against me makes me feel more Chilean than ever. Because we are the true Chileans, in the tradition of O'Higgins, Balmaceda, Allende, Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Claudio Arrau and Victor Jara, and they - the fascists - are the enemies of Chile, the traitors who are selling our country to foreign investments. I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean and I will die a Chilean. They were born traitors, they live as traitors and they will be known forever as fascist traitors.
In that same speech he expressed his gratitude to Aparcoa, Baez and Seeger:
Tonight the popular music of Chile and the United States are brought together in the songs of Aparcoa, one of the most authentic expressions of Chilean folklore; the art of Pete Seeger, the great singer of freedom, and the music of Joan Baez, one of the most extraordinary artistic expressions that this country has given to the world.
Precisely two years ago I was released from a Chilean concentration camp and expelled to Venezuela. The day I arrived in Caracas, Joan Baez was giving a concert in the biggest stadium of that city, and she dedicated her songs to the struggle and suffering of the Chilean people. This was my first contact with the expressions of solidarity which I knew existed, but I had not yet witnessed. There, in that Venezuelan stadium, was this extraordinary woman with her guitar, with her voice full of emotion and feeling, bringing her message of human solidarity with the Chilean people to thousands of Venezuelans.
Tonight she is with us again and on behalf of the people of my country, I want to express to her our admiration and deep gratitude.
Michael Moffitt delivered a eulogy
at at the funeral mass held for his wife, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, and Orlando Letelier at St. Mark's Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on September 26, 1976:
Though it is difficult for me to find any consolation whatsoever in the loss of Ronni, I can take some pride in the fact that she joins a long list of fallen American heroes. They are the kind of heroes you don't hear much about in a bicentennial year. Ronni joins the heroes who organized the first trade unions in the United States. Their fate was similar, more often than not being gunned down by private police forces or troops of federal and state governments. Ronni joins the heroes who were murdered on highways in Mississippi and Alabama in recent times. Black and white, they were killed because they were fighting for the civil rights of black people in the South. She joins the millions, Jews and Gentiles alike, who died resisting the Nazi war machine. She joins the heroic people who today are organizing farm workers in the fields of California, and who are fought every step of the way by professional thugs employed by corrupt unions and the agricultural industry. Finally, she joins literally hundreds of thousands of Chileans who have seen their lives and hopes - in some cases their limbs, tongues, and genitals - severed by the regime of organized terrorism now in power in Santiago.
Ronni and Orlando thus join these countless numbers of heroes who died resisting oppression and injustice. The only possible tribute to their sacrifice is to intensify our own efforts to raise public awareness of the monstrous character of the Chilean military junta, those who collaborate with them, aid them, and support others like it - from Argentina, to Iran, to South Korea. As Orlando often used to say, what the junta is trying to exterminate is not so much individuals as ideas. But if the junta and its henchmen think that by this act of terror they have silenced the voice that speaks for free Chile, they are very much mistaken. For they have not silenced the voice of socialist Chile but multipliedit a hundredfold.
James Van Hise has described his memories of the funeral
I was living in Washington, D.C., in 1976 when Orlando Letelier was murdered, so I was able to participate in a hastily organized protest funeral march. The procession was to begin in a small plaza and end up at the cathedral where the Letelier/Moffitt funeral service was being held. I couldn't believe how many people showed up on that sunny September afternoon—there were thousands. It surprised me that so many people even knew who Letelier was.
As we marched slowly through the streets of Washington, the mood was solemn and defiant. We walked through Sheridan Circle past the spot where Letelier's car had exploded. It was scattered with flowers left by the marchers. Occasionally the crowd would chant back and forth:
"Compañero Orlando Letelier."
As we marched, dark clouds rolled in. By the time we got to the cathedral the sky was black and angry. They had public address speakers set up outside for people who could not get into the service. Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the church, standing in silence while eulogies were spoken. Halfway through, a light rain began to fall. No one left.
When the service was over, the music began. As they carried out the caskets Joan Baez was singing "We Shall Overcome." She sang without accompaniment, her voice ringing out sweet and clear, piercing the rainy darkness like a golden light. The crowd stood silently as the first casket appeared, slowly carried down the church steps. Suddenly a clenched fist went up in the air, then another. Then there were hundreds of raised fists, a salute of defiance to those in high places who acknowledged no limits to their power.
A shiver went down my spine. It was a defining moment in my young life. A feeling of power and destiny washed over me, as what seemed like a great truth revealed itself. I saw that those who rule could manipulate and intimidate, butcher and bomb, but as long as there were brave committed people like these to defy them, their command could never be absolute. Standing there in that hushed crowd with a lump in my throat and the cold rain washing down my face, I knew with moral certainty that standing up and speaking the truth was always the right thing to do, because it strikes at the heart of Power. I knew that putting your life on the line, like Letelier did, unleashes forces against which no dictator can stand for long.
As soon as the murders took place, FBI and D.C. police investigations began to find those responsible for this outrage. Those of us who were active leftists and who either were Chilean or involved in anti-Pinochet activities worried that there would be more attacks. I remember staying far away from the Omega, a Cuban restaurant in Adams Morgan where I lived, since it was a known hangout of anti-Castro fanatics and agents.
Much of that history has been documented, and I suggest two books to get started:
Assassination on Embassy Row
Assassination on Embassy Row.
John Dinges (Author),
Saul Landau (Author),
Ariel Dorfman (Introduction)
: The gripping account of an assassination on U.S. soil and the violent foreign conspiracy that stretched from Pinochet’s Chile to the streets of Washington, DC, with a new introduction by Ariel Dorfman:
On September 10, 1976, exiled Chilean leader Orlando Letelier delivered a blistering rebuke of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal right-wing regime in a speech at Madison Square Garden. Eleven days later, while Letelier was on Embassy Row in Washington, DC, a bomb affixed to the bottom of his car exploded, killing him and his coworker Ronni Moffitt. The slaying, staggering in its own right, exposed an international conspiracy that reached well into US territory. Pinochet had targeted Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, and carried out the attack with the help of Operation Condor, the secret alliance of South America’s military dictatorships dedicated to wiping out their most influential opponents.
The Pinochet File
This account tells the story not only of a political plot that ended in murder, but also of the FBI’s inquiry into the affair.
The Pinochet File is a National Security Archive book written by Peter Kornbluh covering over approximately two decades of declassified documents, from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), White House, and United States Department of State, regarding American covert activities in Chile. It is based on more than 24,000 previously classified documents that were released as part of the Chilean Declassification Project during the Clinton administration, between June 1999 and June 2000.
"Indeed, the documents contain new information on virtually every major issue, episode, and scandal that pockmark this controversial era. They cover events such as Project FUBELT, the CIA's covert action to block Salvador Allende from becoming president of Chile in the fall of 1970; the assassination of Chilean commander-in-chief René Schneider; U.S. strategy and operations to destabilize the Allende government; the degree of American support for the coup; the postcoup executions of American citizens; the origins and operations of Pinochet's secret police, DINA, CIA ties to DINA chief Manuel Contreras, Operation Condor, the terrorist car-bombing of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, D.C., the murder by burning of Washington resident Rodrigo Rojas, and Pinochet's final efforts to thwart a transition to civilian rule. (p.xvii-xviii)"
In 2010, Kornbluth was interviewed on Democracy Now
about connections between the U.S. government and the Letelier assassination:
A newly declassified document offers new evidence that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger canceled a warning against carrying out a secret program of international political assassinations just days before former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Moffitt, were killed in Washington, DC. We speak with Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives.
Investigations, memorials, tributes, and rallies continue.
Since 2012 the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5 has organized 4 rallies in front of the White House. The difference in the one held on June 7, was that the large gathering of more than 500 people enabled the organizers to take the rally and turn it into a formidable march to the Justice Department. Earlier the same day an important and creative activity took place when close to 30 delegates took to the streets of Washington DC on bicycles to call attention to the case of the Cuban 5. Participants included members of the Vancouver delegation, ELAM students and other supporters. After stopping at historical sites around the city they joined the rally in front of the White House.
Homage to Orlando Letelier
The only reason that the Cuban 5 came to the U.S. was to expose terrorist activities being organized in South Florida intent on harming innocent people in Cuba and in the United States. To highlight and justify the work of the Five, a moving ceremony took place at the exact spot in Sheridan Circle where former Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Orlando Letelier and his assistant Ronni Moffitt had been assassinated in 1976 by a terrorist bomb planted in their car. That despicable act was planned and carried out by the same terrorist organizations that continue to exist in Miami under the complicity of previous and current US administrations. At the plaque honoring his father, Francisco Letelier, son of Orlando, described how that event forever changed the lives of his family.
, the CIA operative convicted for Orlando's assassination, is currently not incarcerated.
Michael Vernon Townley (born December 5, 1942 in Waterloo, Iowa) is an American professional assassin currently living under terms of the US federal witness protection program. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent and operative of the Chilean secret police, known as the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), Townley confessed, was convicted, and served 62 months in prison in the United States for the 1976 Washington, D.C., assassination of Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States. As part of his plea bargain, Townley received immunity from further prosecution and was therefore not extradited to Argentina to stand trial for the assassination of Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife. Townley has also been convicted (1993), in absentia, by an Italian court for carrying out the 1975 Rome murder attempt on Bernardo Leighton. Townley worked in producing chemical weapons for Chilean dictator General Pinochet's use against political opponents along with Colonel Gerardo Huber and the DINA biochemist Eugenio Berríos. His father, John Vernon Townley, was also a CIA agent in Chile and Venezuela.
The revelations continue.
In related news, three more people were charged this month in Chile, relating to the murder of Victor Jara.
Victor's widow, Joan Jara, filed court charges in Florida last year against Pedro Barrientos Nunez, who lives in Deltona, Florida, and is now a U.S. citizen.
Last year, Jara’s family filed a civil lawsuit in the United States accusing former Chilean army Lt. Pedro Barrientos Nunez of ordering soldiers to torture the singer. The lawsuit also said Barrientos personally fired the fatal shot while playing a game of “Russian roulette” inside a locker room in Santiago’s Estadio Chile, where some 5,000 supporters of Allende were being detained.
The struggle for justice continues.