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Assassination on U.S. Soil: Orlando Letelier’s Son Seeks Justice for 1976 Bombing by Pinochet Regime

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Image Credit: Institute for Policy Studies (photo right)

As part of events marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-backed military coup in Chile that ousted democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende and led to the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, Chilean President Gabriel Boric visited Washington, D.C., Saturday to deliver a historic address. He spoke at the site where former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier was assassinated in 1976 by agents of the Pinochet dictatorship, along with his co-worker Ronni Moffitt. We feature excerpts from the address and speak with Letelier’s son, Juan Pablo Letelier, a former member of the Chilean House and Senate with the Socialist Party, about his father’s assassination and the Boric administration’s work toward redress for the families of victims of Pinochet’s regime.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with our ongoing coverage of events marking the 50th anniversary of the other September 11th. That’s September 11th, 1973, when the U.S.-backed military coup in Chile unfolded that ousted the democratically elected President Salvador Allende — he died in the palace that day — and led to a 17-year repressive dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

On Saturday, the Chilean President Gabriel Boric made a historic trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the site where on September 21st, 1976, agents of the Pinochet regime assassinated former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt of the Institute for Policy Studies for their work to defend democracy in Chile. Letelier had served as Chile’s minister of foreign affairs, the interior and defense minister under Salvador Allende. At the time he was murdered, he was director of the Transnational Institute at IPS, a progressive think tank.

This is the late filmmaker and author Saul Landau, in a video produced by IPS, describing the attack and his close friend Orlando Letelier.

SAUL LANDAU: He wanted to work, of course, to bring democracy back to Chile and on human rights in general. And both Marc Raskin and Dick Barnet, who were the co-directors of IPS, thought it was a good idea, and we hired him. He didn’t stay all that long, because Pinochet blamed him for several of the bad things that were happening to Chile as a result of Pinochet’s human rights violations: the Kennedy Amendment, which cut off all arms sales and shipments to Chile, and then the Harkin Amendment, which cut off all the rest except for humanitarian aid. And although Orlando was not responsible for either one of these, Pinochet, in his narrow-shaped brain, of course, blamed him, and he ordered the head of the secret police, Manuel Contreras, who was a colonel, to do the job. Contreras, in turn, picked Michael Townley to organize the mission. …

Nobody who was ever involved with these two people will or could ever forget this horrible day. It was, I remember, a warm, slightly drizzly morning. Orlando’s car came to rest just here at the embassy doorstep. Townley had put the bomb at a place in the I-beam where the bomb would blow straight up. Ronni was sitting in the seat next to him and just took a piece of metal in the throat that wiped her out.

I’ve just felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow and sadness, but I also felt that we have got to get the people who did this. And there was no question in my mind that the only possible suspect was named Augusto Pinochet. But Pinochet never got his name on that indictment with the signature of the U.S. attorney, and that was a tragic blow to American justice.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Saul Landau in a film produced by the Institute for Policy Studies, IPS, where Orlando Letelier was working when he was assassinated. The IPS was co-founded by Marcus Raskin, father of Democratic Congressmember from Maryland Jamie Raskin, who addressed the memorial ceremony Saturday at the site of the 1976 assassination in Sheridan Circle in D.C. The event took place a couple of days after independent Senator Bernie Sanders joined Democratic Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others to introduce a congressional resolution apologizing for the U.S. role in the 1973 coup and calling for further declassification of U.S. records for related events. Congressmember Raskin spoke after he presented a copy of the resolution to Chilean President Boric.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN: I was 13 years old when Orlando and Ronni were killed right here. And I had a message that came to school saying that I should come right home after school. And I was on the bus coming just, well, around Sheridan Circle, and we were stuck for several hours in traffic, because it was still a crime scene at that point, and none of us knew what had happened and what was going on. It was before cellphones took place.

But I remember — I remember going to see Michael Moffitt that night with my parents and with the Barnets, and I remember Michael reconstructing the details of what had taken place and describing the horror of the explosion in the car. And I remember everybody just weeping and not sleeping for days at the loss of Orlando, who everybody loved, and Ronni, who everybody loved, who often babysat for me and for my siblings. And I remember my dad and I remember Dick Barnet and Saul Landau and the other fellows holding a press conference and declaring that whatever else would happen, IPS would find the killers of their colleagues and see that justice was done.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Congressmember Jamie Raskin, who was also referring to Michael Moffitt, who was the husband, in the car, though not killed, along with Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier. Also there Saturday was two of Orlando Letelier’s sons, including his Juan Pablo Letelier, a former member of the Chilean Senate, who will join us in a minute from Santiago. This is what he said Saturday.

JUAN PABLO LETELIER: Dear friends, this is a site of cultural memory. This is a memory site that has been built during the last 47 years, led by the IPS. This has been a place where the Letelier-Moffitt Fund, where fabulous voices have built a memory site; hands, struggles, who have built what is here today. We, as a family, are full of gratitude.

AMY GOODMAN: After Orlando Letelier’s son spoke on Saturday, the Chilean President Gabriel Boric addressed the crowd. He began in English.

PRESIDENT GABRIEL BORIC: I have been to a lot of acts of remembrance, and I must confess I am really shaking now after hearing Orlando’s sons, after hearing that incredible speech, Jamie Raskin, wherever you are — oh, there you are — after feeling this energy here, Washington crying, but all of us here gathered happy and celebrating life, not death. That’s an unequivocal way to say that we won, that Orlando and Ronni’s ideals won. And we are very proud of that. And my generation — I was born 10 years after Orlando was killed — my generation is deeply moved and deeply grateful of the fought they gave, of the life they gave to us.

AMY GOODMAN: As Chilean President Gabriel Boric continued his address, he transitioned to Spanish.

PRESIDENT GABRIEL BORIC: [translated] Coup d’états are never inevitable. There will always — always — be a space for dialogue, for conversation, for respect of different opinions. … Even today, there are many who continue with impunity. And when some people dare to ask the victims to silence their grief, to turn the page, I would humbly like to tell them, having spoken to many of those victims, that this reconciliation is only possible with truth and justice, not with forgetting, and with the profound agreement and deep conviction that this can never happen again. [in English] We really expect that the U.S. has a reflection, a more deep reflection — and I know that you are doing that — but a more deeper reflection on what they pushed in Chile, and not only in Chile, in other places in Latin America.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Chilean President Gabriel Boric speaking Saturday in Washington, D.C., at the site of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt’s assassination.

For more, we’re joined by Juan Pablo Letelier, member of the Chilean House and Senate for 32 years, was in high school when his father, Orlando Letelier, was assassinated with U.S. activist Ronni Moffitt in that car bombing on Embassy Row September 21st, 1976 — Letelier’s Socialist Party is also part of President Boric’s coalition — joining us now from Santiago, Chile.

Still, after all of these years, our condolences to you, your family, your country, Juan Pablo Letelier.

JUAN PABLO LETELIER: Thank you very much. And thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. If you can talk about — you know, we heard Congressman Raskin talking about him being 13 years old when your dad was assassinated. Can you talk about your experience at that time? Your father was the Chilean ambassador to the United States until 1973, then moved on to be leading critic outside Chile of Augusto Pinochet, before he was murdered. Talk about where you were.

JUAN PABLO LETELIER: I was at high school. We used to live in Bethesda, Maryland, went to Walt Whitman High School. I was a senior. I was called over to the dean’s office or to the principal’s office. And when I got there, he mentioned to me that my father had been in an accident. He didn’t give me more details. He only mentioned that my aunt was going to come by to pick me up. A little while after, she did. Two of my brothers were in the car with her. I got in the car, sat in the backseat with one of my brothers, Francisco, who asked me if I knew what had happened. And I told him that I did not. And he simply said, “They put a bomb in dad’s car. They put a bomb in dad’s car.”

We drove down to — or into D.C. to George Washington Hospital. We were listening to news briefs, reports of all types, different information, confusing information — one person dead, two persons dead, no information. When we got to the hospital, there was a lot of people, a lot of press, a lot of confusion. We were kind of hustled in. And suddenly, we were in a room with my mother. She came to us. She hugged the three of us that were there. And what she said was, “The only thing I ask of all of you is that after all this is over, you won’t hate anybody.” That was her way of telling us that my father was dead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Juan Pablo Letelier, could you talk about the fight afterwards to bring justice for the people responsible, and especially the long quest to hold Pinochet directly responsible?

JUAN PABLO LETELIER: This has been a very long, long fight. The Institute for Policy Studies, Saul Landau, along with the journalist John Dinges, did a big investigation. They searched for information. They picked up information. The FBI also did its effort. There was a trial initially in the U.S. around '78, I will say, which, unfortunately, despite all the information being available, it was considered a mistrial, amazingly, where the Cubans who lived in the U.S., who collaborated with Pinochet's police or secret police, with the DINA, they were off the hook, unfortunately. They have been identified. This was a big effort. Through many years, many human rights workers kept struggling to get justice done.

Finally, I’d say, thanks to many people who pushed this effort, once we recovered democracy in Chile in the 1990s, during the second democratic government we had, just on that occasion, the head of the Chilean secret police, Manuel Contreras, and another collaborator, Pedro Espinoza Bravo, were sentenced and condemned. Previously, the agent who went to the U.S. had gotten into a plea bargaining agreement. He had been tried in the U.S. He spent barely five years in jail, or seven years, after this terrorist attempt in Washington, D.C., the first one that had occurred ’til then on U.S. soil where an American citizen was also assassinated along with my father, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. But we have been able to advance justice. There are things that are pending.

And in the search of that information, there have been wonderful people, incredible people, who have struggled in Chile and in the U.S. to get more truth. There has been a wonderful person working at the National Archives project, Peter Kornbluh, people at the IPS, human rights workers, as I have said, in the U.S., who have helped us get more information. There are still some facts which are pending, and we have the confidence the truth will prevail.

And we also are very satisfied, allow me to say it, that a group of congressional reps, senators, House of Representatives, have forward a motion to get history straight. As there always were a group of senators and reps who accompanied the cause of democracy in Chile, what is about to be voted in these next days also is part of this administration of justice and creating or getting facts correct.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the challenges still facing Chile’s Congress, and President Boric, the importance of him participating in the event in Washington?

JUAN PABLO LETELIER: President Boric, as he said when he was there at Sheridan Circle, was born 10 years after my father’s assassination. He is the youngest president we have had in Chile. He is a man who is extremely committed to human rights, in Chile and abroad. He has the conviction that no democratic society can exist without full respect of human rights, not mattering if it’s a government of one political tendency or another — can be from the right, it can be from the left, but human rights have to be always upheld. He has stated and maintained that position internationally regarding cases like in Nicaragua or Venezuela or elsewhere.

And he also has been very committed to what is happening in Chile in the tasks which are still pending. He has announced an initiative that is called in Chile la nacional de búsqueda. It’s a national state guaranteed project or initiative where the government authorities and agencies have the legal obligation to aid all relatives of those who were detained and disappeared and whose bodies have still not appeared. It’s more than 1,100 persons. The state has the obligation to help find closure for these families with more truth and more justice. He’s a president who is extremely committed with human rights. And we, as a family, are, in particular, extremely grateful — I’m sure the Karpen Moffitt family feels the same — that he has accompanied us or he would have accompanied us last Saturday in an incredible and very emotive activity on Sheridan Circle.

AMY GOODMAN: You were referencing the apology resolution in the United States Congress. Talk more about what that resolution, if passed, the one that, oh, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others is supporting — what would that mean? And how did what happened 50 years ago, and 47 years ago in the case of the assassination of your father, shape Chile today, Juan Pablo Letelier?

JUAN PABLO LETELIER: Let me state the following: The Church report, the congressional Church report, which was worked through with a number of senators in the U.S. Congress after the military coup in Chile, got part of the facts straight. It stated clearly that there was covert action by the Nixon government against Allende’s government, first trying to destabilize the government economically, then politically, financing opposition, financing illegal and terrorist acts in Chile. That information is what gave us the conviction that the overthrow of the Allende government probably would not have occurred had it not been for U.S. covert intervention. Now, that is something which still is a wound in Chile. It is obvious that there was a political conflict in Chile at the time, but what created the conditions for the breaking of democracy was this covert action. In the following years, there were many brave members of Congress who accompanied the Chileans who fought for democracy. Senator Tom Harkin was one of them. Kennedy and many others accompanied us, George Miller and many other in the House of Representatives.

But this resolution which is being put forth today has an additional value, and I think it’s very important to underline its importance, because it will say, if approved, that the Congress, as a body, recognizes, one, that the use of covert actions is unacceptable, that the use of violence is unacceptable as a mechanism of resolution of conflict of any type. And it states there’s a conviction of profound regret of what has happened. It is a way of recognizing U.S.'s responsibility in what happened in Chile, also in other countries. But in the case of Chile, it's very important because what occurred is that the Allende government came to power through a democratic process, a fully democratic process. Chile was one of the most stable democracies in Latin America 'til 1973. We have recovered our democracy. We're working on it day to day. But to have this statement by the national Congress, I think, not only helps to get history straight, it’s a recognition of many people, many movements, many actors in the U.S. who do not accept the use of violence, internally or externally, to resolve conflicts. I think it’s an incredible importance not only for Chile, but I think it’s also important for internal U.S. policy, the way we have to, as humanity, as mankind, and within each of our countries, how we have to get things done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you tell us, in the brief few seconds that we have left for this segment, the — there was a national search plan approved recently by the Chilean government to search for people who disappeared — who were disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship. What remains to be done in this area?

JUAN PABLO LETELIER: I think the importance of President Boric’s initiative is twofold. Firstly, this is not a responsibility of relatives alone. It can’t be that those who are victims are the only ones responsible for looking for their relatives, searching for their relatives, getting information regarding what happened to their relatives, which in the great majority were persons under 30 years of age. The first importance of Boric’s announcement is that this will be a public, a state agency responsibility to search, to find, to discover what happened, beyond the judicial branch.

Secondly, it’s a way of recognizing that there’s a state responsibility in what occurred. They were state agents, agents of the state, persons who worked for the government — a dictatorship, by all means, but for the state at that point— and hence the state will accompany the families, the relatives, ’til they get justice done.

In the trying to find out what happened, now, we have some versions in Chile of what has happened to some of those bodies, to some of those persons. It’s horrific. Some were thrown to the oceans with railroad rails tied to their bodies. There are other versions of some of the corpses or bodies that were unburied at one point, put together and bombed, literally, the bones to shreds. There are many versions of this type. That is what has to be said as an official and judicial reality, a story, version, so that the families can find closure regarding what happened to their relatives.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Pablo Letelier, I want to thank you so much for being with us, former member of the Chilean House and Senate for 32 years, was in high school when his father, Orlando Letelier, was assassinated with U.S. activist Ronni Moffitt in a car bombing September 21st, 1976, on Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row.

Next up, as the United States marks National Hispanic Heritage Month, we speak to two historians about a brewing controversy over the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino. Back in 30 seconds.

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