Orlando Letelier:

Courage, Idealism, Generosity



September 2008

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 people.

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.






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