The Orlando Letelier Assassination
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Hello and Welcome to this episode of the Chile and Cold War Podcast series. My name is Shannon Mattice and I am a Senior History Major here at Suny Potsdam and today's episode focuses on the assassination of Orlando Letelier. Assassination is not something just reserved to the Chilean dictatorship, regimes have been known for killing their enemies since the beginning of recorded history. What makes the Letelier assassination stand out so much is that it happened on American soil in our own capital where Letelier felt safe from harm.
Before the Pinochet Dictatorship Orlando Letelier was the United States Ambassador from Chile, throughout much of the 1960s he had lived in Washington D.C and in 1971 this led to him being elected as ambassador. Salvador Allende saw Letelier's background in world banking as a way to better the Chilean economy. Letelier returned to Chile in 1973 after being named Foreign Relations minister and held a number of titles within that year. After the military coup on September 11th that led to the fall of Allende’s presidency and the beginning of the long dictatorship, Letelier was among the first supporters of Allende that were arrested and then sent to prison camps. Letelier remained as a political prisoner for 12 months during this time he found himself being tortured and transported to many different camps. Due to pressure from foreign dignitaries, the Pinochet government let Letelier go with the understanding that he was to leave Chile immediately. He made it safely to the United States and began working for the Institute of Policy Studies. For two years he lived in Washington D.C as a political refugee and senior fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. For the rest of his life he spoke out against regimes like Pinochet's and became a leading voice of Chilean resistance.
That was until the assassination that would take his life and one other innocent person and change the lives of not only their family members but also change the world view of Pinochet’s government. A newspaper article written in the Washington Star in 1977 tells of the assassination that occurred in Sheridan Circle on embassy row in Washington DC. While this article was published a year after the assassination the narrative told still brings to light what occurred on that autumn day. On September 21st, 1976, while driving to work with his assistant Ronni Moffitt and her newly wedded husband Michael a car bomb exploded underneath the driver’s side of the car in front of the Irish and Romanian Embassies. Pictures of the scene show the mass destruction caused to the car. The damage to those inside was even worse, listeners please beware of the gruesome details you are about to hear. The explosion severed Letelier's torso entirely and sent shrapnel into Ronni Moffitt’s throat. Michael had rushed to the driver's side to attempt to pull Letelier out but could not get him out of the seat. He did not bother to check on his wife as she had climbed out of the car and he had assumed she was fine much like him. Both died within an hour of the explosion, Michael being the only survivor from the crash. Letelier died due to the damage done to his body and Ronni died by choking on her own blood due to the shrapnel lodged within her throat. Michael estimated that the bomb exploded around 9:30am and the medical examiner estimated both Letelier and Ronni Moffitt’s death based on this time frame.
The group behind the explosion was the DINA, the Chilean secret police controlled by Pinochet. For years Pinochet had been killing and/or disappearing those that supported Allende and those that threatened his rule. This had become a common practice ever since the coup in 1973 and this was not the first time that Letelier found himself being punished for his beliefs and political ties. Only 11 days earlier, Letelier had been informed that the Chilean government had revoked his citizenship. He was now living in the United States with no citizenship and no tie to Chile. Letelier was no fool: he knew that this was a sign of danger for him. In an interview done with one of his sons in 2016 for the Washington Post, Francisco Letelier describes the danger his father knew he was in and his family's reaction to his father's murder. He was in 11th grade when his father was assassinated. Quote “We immediately knew that he had been killed by the junta, Pinochet or agents of Pinochet. He had received death threats before. A short time before the assassination, we had actually had a family meeting. He had told us that he had received threatening letters and threatening phone calls. All of us essentially said, 'You have to continue this struggle.'” End quote. The death of Letelier resonated throughout the world; DINA's terror had reached the United States. Exiles from Chile now had to fear for their own lives across the globe. What was to stop the secret police from finding them and executing them as well? The fight against this clear human rights violation began.
Letelier's wife Isabel and Michael Moffitt, the only survivor from the explosion, spent the rest of their lives petitioning against the clear human rights violations they both had experienced. The future President Jimmy Carter’s administration ran with the idea as one of their campaigning points. As President, Carter wanted to correct the mistakes made by previous presidents in Latin America. The last two presidents had supported not only the military coup in Chile but also the dictatorship. In fact US banks had funneled almost a billion dollars into the Chilean economy since the military coup. By continuing to support the dictatorship the United States was saying that it was okay with the unjustified murder of Chilean citizens. Carter would make sure that the world would not stand for these injustices through the United Nations and that they make the Chilean government responsible for these civil rights infringements. Carter wanted to make a stand and show that what was happening in Chile was not okay and that the United States would stand for it no longer.
The murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were both tragic acts that could have been prevented with foreign intervention against the regime. Ronni Moffitt was not from Chile, but she too fell victim to the destruction of the dictatorship. This attack occurred on U.S soil and makes the event strike the world even more.
Thank you for joining me today for this episode of the Chile and The Cold War Podcast. Have a pleasant day and enjoy the other podcasts and the arpillera exhibit here at SUNY Potsdam.
Letelier, Isabel and Michael Moffitt. “Human Rights, Economic Aid and Private Banks: A Case for Chile” Institute for Policy Studies: 1.
Walker, Vanessa. “At The End of Influence: The Letelier Assassination, Human Rights, and Rethinking Intervention in US-Latin American Relations.” Journal of Contemporary History 1 (2011): 109-135.
DeYoung, Karen David Montgomery, Missy Ryan, Ishaan Tharoor, Jia Lynn Yang. “This was not an accident.” Washington Post. Sept. 20,2016. Accessed Dec. 1, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2016/09/20/this-was-not-an-a…
Weiss, Peter. “Watergate and Sheridan Circle” The Washington Star, Washington D.C 7/7/1977. Wisconsin Historical Society. IPS Collection. Letelier- Weiss. MSS 1057 Folder 38/61. Pages 6-11.
Linse, Kathy. “Human Rights- As Basic as Kindergarten.” Graduate Women (May-June, 1983) from the Wisconsin Historical Society. IPS Collection. Interviews and Press Conferences. MSS 1057 Folder 46/35. Pages 1-3.
Dinges, John, Saul Landue. Assassination on Embassy Row. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.
McCann, Joseph. Terrorism on American Soil: A Concise History of Plots and Perpetrators from the Famous to the Forgotten. Boulder: Sentient Publications, 2006.