Remembering Orlando Letelier 33 Years Later



September 21, 2009

General Cemetery

On this first day of spring in the southern hemisphere, an overcast, chilly Monday that became increasingly colder as the event progressed, more than 60 girls and boys in the grey and red uniforms of Canciller Orlando Letelier School, 20 girls of the Crista McCullogh choir who earlier sang songs by Victor Jara and Violeta Parra, listened attentively, as did 30 members of the general public. From the podium installed to the side of the roughly cut black stone that marks the grave of the former Chilean Ambassador to the United States, assassinated 33 years ago on this date, his son Senator Juan Pablo Letelier, his sister attorney Fabiola Letelier, and Government General Secretary Carolina Toha described the legacy of Orlando Letelier.

(Translations by Memoria y Justicia)


Orlando was Defense Minister in September 1973. His first impulse on that morning of September 11 was to go to La Moneda to be with President Salvador Allende. He called the President very early and Salvador Allende gave him clear orders. "
Do not come to La Moneda. I want you, as Defense Minister, to be at your place of work." And so Orlando went directly to the Ministry building near La Moneda already under siege.

Twelve armed soldiers prevented him from entering the building and immediately arrested him. There was absolutely no cause for arresting him or the other thousands of people arrested that day.

He was first taken to the Tacna Military Base. Periodically, someone would knock on his cell door and say, "It is your turn, Minister." Fortunately, he was not executed there, as so many Chileans were at Tacna. From the military base, he was taken to the Military Academy, a place that must have evoked many memories for Orlando, because he had entered the military school as a cadet when he was 14 years old. Despite a distinguished career at the Military Academy, he eventually decided to leave, choosing to study law instead.

Together with the other government ministers of the Popular Unity government, he was taken by plane, blindfolded, to Dawson Island, in far southern Chile near Punta Arenas and Antarctica. On that cold, rocky island where frigid winds blew, the important government officials were treated like prisoners of war, and made to perform force labor.

Orlando spent a year on Dawson Island, but others were there more than two years. Sixteen countries persuaded the military junta to free him, but it would not relinquish him. Caracas mayor Diego Arias and Venezuela president Carlos Perez finally persuaded the military to release Orlando. He left for Venezuela, a country to which all the Letelier family is grateful.

From Venezuela he decided to go to the United States with his family to transform himself into a person who denounces. Orlando met with elected officials and high International political, informing the world about what was happening in our country. He spoke throughout Europe, denouncing the suffering our people were enduring, the systematic violations of human rights, and the failure of Chilean courts to act. Clearly, he was provoking the hatred of the Chilean military, which were determined to assassinate him.

The entire range of human rights violations converge in Orlando, from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, psychological torture, exile, loss of nationality, to murder. The figure of Orlando has been signaled as an individual who told the world about the crimes that were taking place in Chile, and his assassination caused tremendous disturbance in the United States.

From 1976 to 1978 the U.S. court investigated to identify the perpetrators. The inquest concluded that American citizen Michael Townley had carried out the crime for the DINA with assistance from a group of anti Castro Cubans. The inquest enabled the court to seek the extradition of Chilean officials Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza and Fernando Larios, but the Chilean Supreme Court ignored the thousand pages of evidence of DINA involvement and blocked the extradition.

At that point, perhaps motivated by moral, ethical or political shame, the Supreme Court conveyed the denied extradition record to the Military Court. During 10 years, Jaime Castillo Velasco and I filed motions to ensure that the case remained open. After Jaime Castillo was expelled from the country, Andres Aylwin argued the case before the Supreme Court and obtained a ruling to dismiss the case only temporarily.

Upon the advent of the democratic transitional government, the Supreme Court assigned Judge Adolfo Bañados to the case. Within a short period of time, on the basis of all the court record compiled, he ordered the arrests of two men [Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza]. Attorney Juan Bustos argued before the Supreme Court, as did Hernan Quezada and a young lawyer Hiram Villagra.

I would like to conclude with words my mother Ines del Solar sent Orlando when he was in prison on Dawson Island.

My son! On these long nights

On these gray days that drag on

Desperately slowly I feel

Your memory is strangling my soul

And I can only cry out for you each second


With the serene pride of the just

Of the honorable and the brave

You may well ask with growing anxiety

What is the cause that motivated

This inexplicable martyrdom

Reasons incomprehensible to the world

That inspire the deepest hatred

Of justice and freedom

Only God in his divine goodness

Will be the judge of your gesture of giving yourself

Entirely to this land that you loved

Inspired by a noble ideal

You gave yourself entirely, without asking anything in return

With an open hand and your whole heart

You offered a magnificent and courageous present

And hurled it to the side of the trail

To serve your beloved Chile

And to see a comrade in each man

I know of the constant battle

It meant for your young life

And I saw you always marching forward

Filled with victories, forehead held high

Today I ask myself if your sacrifices

Are understood by those you judge you now

I am certain that from this difficult trial

You will emerge more human

Because like a sacred fire, pain

Will make you ever stronger, more pure

And on a splendid, clear morning

Flowers will cover the roads

And surrounded by love and song

You will walk trusting in your destiny

Because men like you, my son

Will never be defeated.

CAROLINA TOHA, Government Secretary General

We were in Mexico when we learned about the attack that took the lives of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffet. Thousands of Chileans and persons from all corners of the planet can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. And I remember it to this day.

Probably, those who planned this crime aimed to eliminate someone they considered dangerous to the interests of the dictatorship. Orlando Letelier was a person who not only Chileans respected and listened to but people all over the world. All countries, and especially the United States listened to his testimony about what was happening in Chile and what he personally had lived through as political prisoner. Democratic readers the world over, human Rights agencies, international organizations and prestigious communications media repudiated the Chilean dictatorship alter hearing Orlando Letelier speak. He was capable of making many listen to him. And he was capable of mobilizing commitment for taking action by very diverse actors to bring back democracy in Chile.

That is why they wanted to kill him. They feared what he could awaken and mobilize. Yet they failed to calculate that his death would be read throughout the World as irrefutable proof of the evil of which the dictatorship was capable and that it was set upon exterminating the forces that had accompanied President Salvador Allende.

Personally, I remember that the death of Orlando Letelier invoked in me a sense of infinite fear. At the time I was 11, about the age of many of the children here today. I had talked to Orlando a short time before in Mexico City. Some months earlier my mother suggested that we meet with him so he could transmit to me the experience he shared with my father on Dawson Island. Maybe the children here do not know that my father [Jose Toha] just like Orlando Letelier had been a Cabinet minister of Salvador Allende and that he too was imprisoned on Dawson Island many long months. That encounter during which he told me anecdotes and stories about their time in prison took place when both of us felt safe. The danger seemed to be behind us, although many people were in prison or persecuted in Chile. But Orlando was out of danger.

His death a few months later placed that safety in doubt. We would never be safe again. That is how I experienced it as the girl that I was. But I relieve many people in exile had the same sensation.

The dictatorship feared Orlando Letelier alive. But it never imagined what Orlando Letelier would mean dead. If anyone still thought the dictatorship was legitimate, that assassination dispelled all doubts. If anyone was tempted to feel sympathy for Pinochet, alter that assassination, they did not think twice. So many, many years have passed and today as we gather in front of the tomb of Orlando Letelier, I would like to express my gratitude to him for the conversation we had in Mexico City that is engraved in my memory as if it had been yesterday.

Just as I am grateful for the meeting I was able to have with him as a child, Chileans have much to thank him for what he did while he was alive and what his voice against the dictatorship was able to achieve in exile. His years as an international official, his term as secretary of state, and his experience as cabinet minister, but not only that. We should thank him for what he was capable of doing alter his death. His assassination touched to many people and brought out the best of so many men and women who repudiated what happened.

We must also thank him for the road to justice that his case oponed. His wife Isabel Margarita, his sons, the infaltable Fabiola, certainly the serious and inspired work of Juan Bustos, the memory about the role of Jaime Castillo and Andrˇs Aylwin, of which I was unaware. To all of them we must thank for that difficult, and impossibly sinuous road that they paved, that led to the possibility of truth and justice for many others. Now, years later, many are traveling that road or have already done so. Today I want to thank Orlando for what he gave us when he was alive, for what he gave us after death, and for the hope for justice and truth that he continues inspiring in us and will inspire forever.
Thank you very much.


Allow me to offer three reflections. If we are here today and are able to talk, if we are here today in this cemetery that has seen so much pain as well as hope, if we can be here peacefully, it is because hundreds, thousands sacrificed their lives to recover democracy. It is because dozens of fighters for democracy opened the way, as did Roberto Garreton here today, one of many lawyers who raised his voice in the past and continues to do so wherever atrocities are committed around the world.

If we are here today it is because people fought for freedom and to open channels. Many who fought for freedom did not live to see this day. Many who fought for those dreams are not here. Sometimes one forgets the many children and young people who died during the protests. Many were high school students who fought for hope, to be treated in a different way. If we are here today, it is because many fought.

Orlando Letelier had something that perhaps has not been underscored. It may derive from his Military Academy training, and it has to do with the fact that ideals about changing society are collective. Not one person alone or one group of people alone, but rather broad communities make history. The people create history, as President Salvador Allende said.

Second, I wish to express my gratitude for the permanent remembering this school does, which is so needed in our country. At times this society seems to believe the world was made yesterday, that the world can be made today, and that the future can be built through a media catch phrase. History is about the memory of our deep roots. Things do not just happen alone.

I wish to share some words for the young man who spoke here, Pedro. You must know that each of you have roots in the municipality of El Bosque, each one has dreams, as did Orlando Letelier, as did President Salvador Allende who rests a few meters away. We had dreams when we were young. We dreamed that we could Guild a country where people are valued for what they are, not for what they have.

I want to urge the children and young people from the school to never forget the reason we pay tribute to a person is that his life was cut down prematurely because he represented a way of viewing society of the future in which we will all be respected equally.

Carolina and I belong to a special generation. We belong to the families of Dawson, united by destiny. Our fathers were prisoners in the same place. History and life brought us together.

We remember these 33 years since Orlando was deprived of his life, when I was only 15 and Carolina was 11, because our lives crossed. Thank you, children from Orlando Letelier School, for being part of this effort to build a country with different values, as Pedro said, where people are valued for what they are rather than what they have.

Thank you.







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