Thirty-two years ago, on September 21, 1976 a bomb that
had been planted by agents of the Chilean dictatorship exploded
under the floorboard of the car Orlando Letelier was driving.
Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffet died in that first act
of international terrorism on U.S. soil. In tribute to Orlando
Letelier, we print excerpts from the book Orlando Letelier,
Biographical Notes written by his uncle Edmundo del
Solar (published 1978 by Vantage Press).
From Chapter VI
During his tenure in Washington, from February 1971 until
May 1973, as ambassador to the White House, Orlando had
to face tremendous and complex problems: embargoes, freezing
of funds, negotiations, and refusal of credits on the part
of international organizations dedicated to economic cooperation
as well as private banks. The destabilization of the government
he served and represented in Washington was carried on in
many fronts and in a variety of ways. Certain communications
media lacking in objectivity and decidedly anti-leftist,
deformed the truth of the Chilean political process.
A few months before the military coup, Orlando was called
back to Chile where, for brief periods, he served as Minister
of Foreign Relations, Minister of the Interior, and Minister
of Defense to a government whose end was visibly feared,
even in the eyes of its supporters. His democratic principles
and loyal devotion to justice proved unalterable during
his almost twelve months as a political prisoner. His hopes
for a resurgence of democracy helped him overcome the uncertainty
of a future that lacked many alternatives.
When the military government, forced by international pressure,
released him and expelled him from the country, Orlando
was faced with the most dangerous and challenging task in
his political career.
What concerned him now was how to strengthen himself and
strengthen those who shared his desire to destabilize the
Chilean dictatorship. Were these the same weapon used against
Allende? Of course not, because the campaign of Orlando
Letelier against the military regime was democratic. His
weapons were the word, the documented denunciation, and
any legal action that could ultimately bring an end to the
infamy, crime, destruction and dehumanization of the Chilean
people. His fight was an advocacy for freedom and democracy.
He could not carry it on Chilean soil. There was no room
for him there, nor for dissidents or lovers of freedom.
He had been exiled. Moreover, it was impossible to establish
a dialogue between those who supported democratic thought
and those who had pointed and continued to point their weapons
against the people and against the law.
His primary concerns were his fellow Chileans, subdued,
jailed, tortured, and persecuted, and those who, in the
face of terror, had become slaves to omnipotent power. Undoubtedly
his plans, objectives, and dreams had but one goal: that
Chile would once again become a democracy where justice,
freedom, constitutional guarantees, and human rights would
reign. This was the basis for his struggle and the resistance
Orlando Letelier waged in exile.
He could have chosen the simple, easy life, giving himself
to limited objectives and well-paid work routing, to his
home and his children and to a comfortable and smug bourgeois
happiness. That was not possible. The Chilean drama was
in his very blood and his conscience. He knew how the system
worked. He knew that the temporary freedom and incremental
liberation of political prisoners was not the equivalent
of a return to freedom. He knew that many would continue
to find refuge in other countries, that hundreds or thousands
of Chileans would emigrate, looking for the opportunity
to start a new life, but that would not solve the terrible
problems his country faced. He knew that those who would
continue to tolerated or accept the iron dictatorship were
condemned to a dark future limited by the whims of unlimited
power. He knew that the number of prisoners would perhaps
diminish, but that the number of missing persons would increase.
And moreover, no Chilean dissident could feel safe and really
protected, no matter which country he was in.
He knew all these things. He was always up to date on what
was happening and he knew well those in power or those who
implemented the plans of the army. He knew also that fear
moved them and that this reaction was more dangerous or
as dangerous as the other: the assurance that they could
manage the country without resistance or obstacles. Orlando
Letelier thought about all these things. The only alternative,
will all the risks it entailed, was the change of a government
which had reached power by means of a coup for another which
could count on the support and trust of the majority of
the people, a government elected by the people for the Chilean
As long as Chile continued to be in a constant state of
war, regulated by an unending emergency situation, with
curfew, civil rights suspended, the law and the statutes
debased, governed by factions, nothing healthy for the mental
and physical life of the country could be foreseen.
If the military dictatorship, according to its lights and
the advice of its civilian collaborators, is to continue
trying to create a new pseudo juridical order with no other
end than to serve the vested economic interests, all the
victims of the government by force now in power and the
sacrifice of Orlando will have been in vain.
From Chapter VIII
When Orlando was a prisoner on Dawson Island, I remember
sending him two or three messages as soon as I learned that
he had been allowed to receive a few words once a month.
From the military camp of Ritoque in central Chile, many
months later, he wrote again responding to our efforts to
communicate words of hope and support.
No charges have been filed against me, I have had no
access to a lawyer or legal counsel; all I can do is wait
and not give up hope. This is what I am doing. That is the
way it works, the problem is not so much being imprisoned.
Not letting your spirit collapse is the biggest problem.
One must not think or believe in death, because the task
demanded of us is to live.
Orlando would never find peace and quiet. His lengthy, almost
twelve months in prison, the torture of isolation, the punishments
and arbitrariness prepared him for the bitter struggle which
would start up again from the time he landed in Venezuela,
liberated by international pressure, the diplomatic arrangements
of the Venezuelan government, and especially, the decisive
personal collaboration of his friend and compadre of many
years, Diego Arria, then governor of Caracas.
He was deported from Chile without any personal documentation
and given but a few minutes to say good-bye to his relatives
at the airport. He was taken from prison to the Venezuelan
embassy in Santiago and from there to exile.
His wife, children, aged parents, his sisters and the rest
of his relatives who loved him remained in Santiago.
During eleven months he had been subjected to detention,
incarceration in various military prisons, and in the first
days after the coup to mock shootings, but never to any
kind of formal or informal trial. The written and spoken
media took it upon themselves to spread libelous stories
in an attempt to damage his reputation and conduct. He was
accused of being an opportunist, of having engaged in drug
and arms traffic.
They could not destroy him physically or morally. Imprisonment
and forced labor were responsible for his losing fifty pounds.
His single-mindedness and resolve to fight for his convictions
and his cause remained intact, or were perhaps strengthened
by suffering and tragedy.
The human person is really extraordinary. When one becomes
convinced of the utmost importance of living, one becomes
strengthened an is able to tell oneself daily: my duty is
to remain alive and not let the fascists destroy me.
These words of Orlando in his interview with a North American
newspaperman were but a reaffirmation of the belief, which
would remain with him the rest of his life.
After working for some months in Caracas, he decided to
accept the position offered him by the Institute for Policy
Studies based in Washington, D.C. and he came to live here.
He was reunited with his family who followed him into exile
and having recuperated his physical and spiritual strength,
he readied himself for a dangerous and tiring effort, which
would not offer any slack or rest.
I remember that a few weeks before he was reunited with
his wife and all his children, we had a family gathering
in Chile Chico where we had invited him to rest and to celebrate
together my wife�s birthday.
That piece of North American land was symbolic of his native
land, free from oppression and a garden of paradise full
of pleasant memories of a happy and joyful era.
While we contemplated the beautiful panorama, I asked him,
"Will you continue to serve your cause and your ideals,
exposing yourself to new dangers, attacks, and reprisals?
Would not this be a good time to giver yourself entirely
to your wife and children, to look after the peace of mind
of your parents and all the other relatives who suffered
so much because of the uncertainty of your fate last year?"
He looked at me with amazement and putting his brotherly
hand on my shoulder, he answered, "All those are matters
of great concern to me. It keeps me awake nights. But I
have a higher cause to serve, that of thousands of men,
women and children who have suffered and will continue to
suffer the misery, degradation, and cruelty which characterizes
the tyranny which now controls Chile. I am the first political
prisoner who has been freed. I enjoy the privilege of having
been rescued by the miracle which other men who love and
respect freedom made possible. I am referring to my fellow
prisoners at Dawson and in so many other rotten prisons
that is my real family, which has priority in my struggle
and efforts. Those of mine who are in the greatest danger,
my wife and sons, will soon be well protected in a free
and democratic country."
I was impressed by his words, but I added, "And your
life, your security?"
"My life," said Orlando, "is a price which
I will gladly pay if with that sacrifice I would in any
way minimize the tremendous problems and challenges which
my people have to face."
Perhaps these words of Orlando Letelier, which I have paraphrased,
reflect best his courage, idealism and generosity.
to "Reclaiming Memory"