Once Upon a Time

17 September 2001
Article
Keynote Speech by Ariel Dorfman at the Letelier-Moffitt Dinner, Washington DC, October 1993.

It is strange to be here precisely when Isabel Letelier is not. I have watched over the years how that extraordinary woman has coped with her tragedy - her wisdom, her energy, her sense of humor and above all her compassion. All this can be said because she is not physically present.

I met Isabel the same day I met Orlando Letelier. It was to be the only time I would ever spend with him.

It was a night a bit over twenty years ago. A Thursday, if I'm not mistaken - Thursday, September the fifth, 1973. The day before, September fourth, had been the third anniversary of Allende's victory in the presidential elections. In a way we knew we were saying good-bye to our president - going by Allende's balcony in the Moneda two times, as if we wanted the moment never to depart.

The next night I said hello for the first time to Orlando and Isabel. It would also be a good-bye to Orlando though I can remember no foreboding, as in the case of Allende, that I would never see him again. There was not much talking that evening. Fernando Flores, the Ministro Secretario de Gobierno, which is something like the chief of staff and information, had organized a thank-you party for General Carlos Prats, who had recently resigned his post as commander in chief of the army. A terrible blow for our government, because Prats had been the main support of the constitutional government, a man who had begun to define the security of Chile in terms that left cold war ideology behind: a secure nation is secure when it has real sovereignty and its people are well fed, housed, healthy, free, educated. Prats had been forced to leave his post due to pressure from inside the armed forces, but had left in his place a man whose name I would rather not mention tonight in order not to sour our dinner, but who - If you need a hint - is still the commander in chief of the army and was our dictator for seventeen years.

From that party for Carlos Prats, I can recall one scene that was to haunt me for years to come - that still haunts me today as I speak to you.

At some point in the evening, dancing began. A tango was played. In my mind I see three couples circling, turning, becoming the music: first I see Orlando Letelier dancing with Sofia Prats, the wife of Carlos Prats; then into my field of vision comes Isabel dancing with José Tohá, Allende's former minister and great friend; and then I see General Prats himself turning around and around with Tohá's wife, Moy de Tohá.

In the years to come I would evoke that moment often. At the time I did not realize that the three men dancing that evening were woven together by a fatal hidden connection that would only become apparent once Pinochet had selected them for death; all three had been Ministers of Defense for Allende, all three had been close to the military, all three were witnesses to the betrayal by the military of their vows, all three knew too much. All three would eventually be silenced.

But that was not what I focused on at the time.

They were so alive, the music was so vibrant - they glided along the wooden floors of the Peña de los Parra where we were holding our farewell dinner as if the tango could exorcise and postpone what was descending upon us. They hummed to each other the songs as if they could dance forever, as if they could hold the future at bay forever.

They couldn't. And we couldn't.
Six days later, the coup came.
Salvador Allende was the first to die.
Many more were to follow.

Orlando Letelier and José Tohá, along with Fernando Flores and several others who were present that evening, were arrested and sent to Dawson Island. Their wives were to begin the ritual that was to become all too familiar for women in the Chile of Pinochet: trying to get the military to release their husbands or at least guarantee their safety. As for general Prats and his wife, on September 15th 1973 they went into a discrete exile in Argentine.

Exactly six months later, on March 15th, 1974, we received the news that José Tohá had been murdered in captivity.

I was already in exile. I can remember bringing the news to my wife, Maria Angélica, who had known Tohá since she was a child, who had called him tio (uncle).

For six months, Angélica had watched the country - and her life - destroyed, and had kept total control over her emotions, the bizarre control that survivors often exhibit in order to deal with overwhelming trauma.

When she heard about Tohá, however, she broke down - she started to cry with a suddenness and brutality that surpised me. And all she would say as she cried was: los van a matar a todos, los van a matar a todos.

She was right.

Later that year, in October, 1974, General Prats and his wife were blown up by a bomb in Buenos Aires planted by the DINA, the Chilean secret police. A similar bomb was used to kill Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in September 1976.

With that act, carried out here in Washington, not far from where we sit tonight, General - altight, I'll say the name - General Pinochet was sending a message to all Chileans: there is no place safe on this planet for any of you. If you think that exile allows you freedom, you are wrong. Or to translate it into other terms, it was as if he were saying: you who escaped from me, you who danced that night, you will not dance again, you have no right to music or tangos or love, I am the god of silence. I own your bodies.

But of course in this way he was wrong.
General Pinochet knew a lot about death.
But he knew and still knows so little about life.
He could kill Orlando, but he did not own his body.
We own the body of Orlando.
The people in this room.

And many others who are not with us tonight - people in Chile, especially; but also many people here in the States who helped bring his murder to light, who tracked down his murderers.

The owners of Orlando's body are those who survived him and did not allow the second implacable form of death to claim him, the death by forgetfulness and amnesia and distance. We could not stop the General's men from shattering the legs that had danced that night in Chile, we could not stop the General's men from destroying the lips that had sung the tango. We are not the lords of death to decide who lives and who dies.

But we are the ones who give meaning to that death, we are the guardians of that life and that memory. We can choose whether to allow that man to die over and over again as we forget him, or whether we can turn that death into life, into justice, into the dance that Orlando can no longer dance with us, with Sofia Prats, with Isabel, with me.

I insist on this dancing metaphor because it allows us to connect with the cueca sola, the dance that the women of the disappeared have been dancing with their absent men. Orlando has not, of course, been disappeared. On the contrary, his murder was brazen, open, exterior, spectacular - the opposite of the secret, furtive murders of men and women in cellars, in fields, in attics, in old houses with soundproof walls.

And yet, our visible dance with Orlando has served the same function as the cueca sola; to make sure he is always present, to make sure that he is not killed again.

I say "our" because this is a dance where Chileans and norteamericanos join in. It is particularly moving that American citizens have been so essential in keeping Orlando alive: first, because it is a way of answering the dance of death that was created by Kissinger and Nixon so many years ago, conspiring with Chileans to bring military dictatorship to my country. They danced with Pinochet, while you dance with Orlando, with Tohá, with Allende, with the disappeared, with Isabel.

But it also moving to se you here tonight, remembering, refusing to let death have the last word, because in Chile today there are far too many who, having been with Orlando in the struggle, would today rather forget than remember. Out of fear, weariness or mere convenience, there are many democratic people in Chile who want to bury the past, who feel it is time to get on with life, to look forward.

I understand their fears. I understand the dangers of being captured by the past, being devoured by the dead, being subservient to sad memory.

But there has to be a place to remember.
There have to be occasions when I can say to you as I say to you tonight:
Once upon a time there was a country where three couples danced tango.
Once upon a time a man called Orlando Letelier was alive.
Once upon a time many people decided not to let him die.