Two Deaths in the Morning

01 December 1976
Article

Orlando Letelier represented all the qualities government should stand for: he was a lawyer who believed in rules and constitutions, his ethic was equality and justice; his means of persuasion and authority was reason.

 
Published at
Mother Jones
 
 

I have begun again to sleep without dreaming of terrible violence. The image that appeared in my sleep during the first days after the murders has not recurred. Orlando was dressed in his always well-pressed gray suit. Except that he was wooden, like a ventriloquist's dummy, and his legs flapped and folded underneath him. His face was intense in the next image as he lay pinned under the car. I think that Orlando and Ronni suffered a great deal before they died. His legs had been blown off, but he lived for about 20 minutes; an artery pierced in her neck, she drowned in her own blood. When we say fascism, or Chilean junta, or DINA or Henry Kissinger, I think of these images of Orlando and Ronni. My grief has abated.

September 11, 1973. Santiago, Chile

Salvador Allende, president of Chile, is informed of unauthorized troop movements in various parts of the country. The coup has begun. Allende finds that the few loyal regiments remaining are already under attack or siege, and realizes that now everything is only a matter of time. Orlando Letelier, the minister of defense, one of the last men Allende trusts, is called by Allende from La Moneda, the presidential palace. Orlando has already served the Allende government as ambassador to the United States, and, as minister of the interior and foreign affairs, demonstrated his loyalty. Allende wants desperately the answer to one question from his minister and friend: has the head of the armed forces been captured in the coup? Letelier tries to discover the answer by phone, but fails. Despite street fighting that has broken out, Orlando proceeds on foot to the defense ministry, adjoining Moneda Palace. His bodyguard has not appeared that morning, and Orlando is unarmed. At the door to the ministry he is refused entry by a guard. From inside a voice shouts, Let the Minister in. He enters and receives the butt of a rifle in his ribs. Upstairs the head of the armed forces, General Pinochet, is preoccupied with matters of his own: he will lead the junta, and by the end of the day, with Allende's death, he will become the new ruler of Chile. Orlando is tortured. A black sack is put over his head and he is forced to remain standing. He does not know for how many days. Men's voices repeat threats of worse torture, of execution. He feels panic, terror, pain, confusion. I never before imagined what it would be like to be blind. But that experience taught me the terror of losing a basic sense. He is interrogated. But the interrogators ask questions that either have no answers or are available in the captured files. He is beaten regularly. His fingers are broken. Orlando Letelier spends the next year of his imprisoned in a concentration camp on Dawson Island in Tierra del Fuego.

May 30, 1976

Ronni Karpen marries Michael Moffitt. Both have been working at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. Ronni has first worked as assistant to Institute Co-Director Marc Raskin and then as IPS's fundraiser. Good-natured and well-liked, she had grown up in Passaic, New Jersey, the oldest of three children. She had done well at school and graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in education. But she had not liked teaching under the restrictions imposed by the suburban school system, and after a year of teaching she found her place at the Institute.

September 1973-February 1974, Chile

In the first six months of its existence, the Chilean junta gets about $470 million in loans and credits from the United States, Brazil, Argentina and international agencies. The Allende government had watched its aid dwindled to almost nothing, except military aid and such things as powdered milk. In the year before the coup, the World Bank had loaned a total of $2.1 million to Chile. On February 6, the US finally agrees to the rescheduling of Chile's foreign debt, which it had refused to do while Allende was in power. Disciples of Milton Friedman, the reactionary University of Chicago economist, begin instituting a new plan for the Chilean economy. They use as their text a 300-page blueprint allegedly financed before the coup by the CIA. On Dawson Island, Orlando Letelier recuperates in the Antarctic cold. His fingers have been re-broken. A fellow prisoner, José Toha, is reported suicide. Toha, the former minister of the interior, is one of Orlando's closest friends. In the months on Dawson Island, Toha has lost 40 pounds and becomes the subject of drug experiments. He allegedly commits suicide by hanging himself by his belt from a steampipe. No one can explain why Toha, so weak that he can hardly move, should have needed a belt for his patient's gown. Chile is now nothing more or less than a fascist dictatorship. Those who had hoped that the generals would restore the Christian Democrats to power are mistaken. The generals kill, torture, jail even Christian Democrats.

October 5, 1976, Washington DC

Two weeks havbe passed since the murders took place. Dreams of Ronni and Orlando continue to haunt my sleep. I assume this is trie for others close to them. In last night's dream Ronni appeared in a gray suit, bloated, pregnant, ashen-faced like an over-exposed color film sequence. She walked by with her short hair newly cut. Awake, I put together a sketch of a woman. On her face she wore her character. Open, optimistic, at peace with her identity, incapable of feeling malice. Evil was difficult for her to grasp in concrete form. She held a lofty view of human possibility. She understood that much crime and sin derived from injustice and oppression. Ronni was 25. Her face and body spoke health. She had stopped smoking and had begun to enjoy her new marriage.

September 10, 1974, Buenos Aires

Orlando is released from Dawson island and deported to Venezuela. A month later another Chilean exile, General Carlos Prats, and his wife, Sofía Cuthbert, are murdered in Buenos Aires. Prats, who had commanded the armed forces under Allende, was writing a book about the coup and about Pinochet, who had succeeded him as a commander. Prats was a military man but was also fiercely loyal to the constitution; he refused to participate in coup discussions. Prats had recommended Pinochet as his successor on the grounds that he was dull but loyal. Prats and his wife are blown to bits when a bomb explodes in their car. The Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), the Chilean secret police, are accused of the murders. Prats' papers are stolen from his home. No one is arrested. It is the beginning of a string of murders of Chilean exiles.

Summer 1975, Washington DC

In committee hearings before the US Senate, the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledges receiving a budget of $11 million to destabilize the Allende government (which the CIA turns into $40 million by dealings on the Chilean black market). It is also revealed that in the fall of 1970, after consulting with President Nixon, Pepsi-Cola Board Chairman Donald Kendall had arranged a meeting between Agustín Edwards, owner of El Mercurio, Santiago's leading right-wing daily and top US officials. These officials included CIA Director Richard Helms, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger. Later in the same day, these same American officials meet at the White House with the President; after the meeting Richard Helms quips to reporters, I have just been given the marshal's baton. The Senate committee says: All CIA officials stated that they interpreted President Nixon's September 15 instruction as a directive to promote a military coup in Chile ... Nixon tells Helms that to be successful, any effort to defeat Mr. Allende would have to be supported by the military factions in Chile. Henry Kissingher tells the 40 Committee, which oversees US intelligence operations, that a Marxist president in Chile would be incompatible with US security.

August 1975, Washington DC

Manuel Contreras-Sepulveda, head of DINA, arrives in Washington as the Senate hearings continue. Vernon Walters, deputy director of the CIA, arranges the visit and meetings with top government officials. The White House imposes strict security on the visit and refuses to permit Congressional inquiry. The subject of Contreras' meeting is not made public.

October 6, 1975, Rome

On their way home late at night, Bernardo Leighton and his wife, Anita, are machine-gunned on a Rome street. Leighton, a former vice president of Chile, is one of the founders of the Chilean Christian Democrat party. He had co-operated with Allende, and, like Carlos Prats, he is one of those exiled figures around whom broad unity can form. Leighton recovers, but his wife is paralyzed. Although his connection with the assassination attempt has never been definitively proved, Colonel Pedro Ewing had recently begun organizing DINA's European operations from Madrid. Ewing had been in Buenos Aires shortly before the Prats' murder. The same day as the Leighton shotting, police deport three allleged DINA agents from France.

February 1976

By the end of 1975, Chile has received more than $2 billion in foreign credits and loans. It is expected to receive more than $500 million up until 1980 from foreign lenders. Its foreign public debt now approaches $5 billion; interest payments on this debt consume over a third of Chile's export earnings. The money is not keeping the Chilean economy afloat.


Inflation reaches 341 per cent. Unemployment in Santiago has climbed to 18 per cent, six times the rate under Allende. A large part of the population is living on the edge of starvation, while, simultaneously, income is transferred into fewer and fewer hands. In 1972 Chilean workers and government employees received 62.9 per cent of total national income; the propertied classes received 37.1 per cent. By 1974 the situation had reversed, with wage earners getting 38.2 per cent and the propertied sector receiving 61.8 per cent. In less than two years, one observer notes, half a century's gains by the Chilean working class have been wiped away.
It is this life under the junta that Orlando Letelier is now describing to Dutch officials in Amsterdam. Following his release from prison, Orlando has moved to Washington and becomes first an associate fellow, then director of the TNI, Transnational Institute, the international program of the Institute for Policy Studies, where I work. In February Orlando travels to the Netherlands to meet with TNI Fellows. In Holland he also speaks to the Dockworkers' Federation. They respond by calling for a total boycott on handling of Chilean goods. Orlando organizes financial aid for Chilean refugees. He persuades Dutch leaders that the junta violates every value that Holland has traditionally stood for. The Dutch cancel a $60 million loan for Chilean industrial development. When the cancellation is later announced, the junta will blame Letelier.
In the year and a half since his release, Orlando's qualities make him a central figure among the Chilean exiles. He meets with Christian Democrats and members of the MIR, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. He persuades them gently to drop most of their differences. He makes it clear that the Socialists and Communists will participate in any future democratic government. His mastery of diplomacy and dialog, reason and argument, his ability to make necessary but not principled compromises, allow the center Christian Democrats and Catholic Church officials to open dialog with Socialists and Communists.

In Washington Orlando and I and Michael and Ronni Moffitt work closely together at the Institute for Policy Studies. We also socialize. One evening, Orlando and his wife, Isabel, walk into a dance concert already under way. He sees that he is seated next to the Chinese delegation and is noticeable disturbed.
During intermission he comes out looking confused. I must admit, he whispers to me, that in the Cabinet I was pro-Chinese. What a foolish thing. The Chinese had closed their embassy doors on all Chileans seeking entry after the coup. Now they supply loans, credit and arms to the junta. At work Orlando concentrates for long hours. At play he concentrates on freedom. Swimming in the ocean he takes lusty butterfly strokes. How wonderful freedom is.

He talks little about his torture or about Dawson Island. Once he confides to me almost matter-of-factly: You know what happened to me when they tortured me and I couldn't take any more pain? My mind and body separated and I could see me looking at myself. I couldn't talk no matter how much I wanted them to stop. So I split myself in two. My body felt pain and my mind became a separate thing. Orlando chooses to concentrate on the future.
Orlando is a six-foot redhead. He obviously comes from a wealthy family. One sees it in his face and his clothes, his presencia, as they say in Spanish. He is a graduate of a military school and holds degrees in law and economics. He is, in the British sense of the word, a gentleman.

March 1976, Costa Rica

A Cuban exile, Orlando Bosch, is arrested by the Costa Rican police on suspicion of planning to assassinate Andrés Pascal Allende, a MIR leader who had been given asylum. He travels on an official Chilean passport, and the press reports that he is a DINA agent. Bosch is deported to Brazil.

May 1976, Santiago

William Simon, secretary of the treasury, visits Santiago and praises the junta for its work in reestabilishing economic freedom in Chile.

June 1976, Washington DC

Congress, following the Senate hearings on CIA involvement in the Chile coup, cuts off US military aid to the junta. It does not act, however, to restrict investment.

 

August 25, 1976, New York City

A high-ranking DINA official is recognized on the Lufthansa flight from Santiago to New York. During the flight he talks with four other men. At Kennedy airport the five pretend they do not know each other. Earlier that month Orlando confides that things are getting difficult. The Dutch announce that they have cancelled the $60 million loan for Chile. El Mercurio, the paper that supports the junta, attacks him violently, just as it did Leighton at the time of the attempt on his life.

September 10, 1976, New York City

The third anniversary of the Chilean coup. Orlando appears at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum. The junta has just issued a decree stripping him of his nationality, and he is visibly upset. One of the reasons for this action, the junta declares, is Orlando's role in blocking the Dutch project. Before 5,000 people who fill the Forum and 2,000 more outside, Orlando declares: I was born a Chilean. I am a Chilean. I will die a Chilean. Threats on Orlando's life increase. Isabel is getting phone calls: Are you the wife of Orlando Letelier? Yes. No, you are his widow.

September 15, 1976, Washington DC

Orlando calls me for help in starting his car. I phone AAA. We wait in the lobby of the Institute for Policy Studies, chatting about various things we plan to do. The tow truck arrives. We run into the alley next to IPS. It is raining. Orlando gets into the car and unlatches the hood. I lift it. I feel funny. I peer inside, slightly apprehensive. Is it because I know he is a target? Who knows? I look at the guts of the car as the AAA man connects the jumper cables. Orlando starts the car. His warning blinkers go on and off. We all agree that he must have left them on and that caused the battery to run down.

September 16, 1976

Two of Orlando's friends and colleagues work late with him. He looks for his car keys to drive them home. He cannot find them. A search is undertaken. One of Orlando's sons brings a duplicate set of keys. A door to the car is ajar.

September 18, 1976

Orlando and Isabel celebrate Chilean Independence Day by having a party at their house. Some 50 Chilean exiles come. Orlando sings and plays the guitar; one of his fingers, broken by Pinochet's police, can no longer press the guitar string tightly to the fret. He talks about the future, expresses optimism that the junta cannot last, that movements in Chile are multiplying, that the campaign to isolate the Pinochet regime is working.

September 19, 1976

I arrive at Orlando's house for dinner. I read art books while he is being interviewed by a reporter.

Isabel returns home from working on her human rights project for Chile. Orlando's interview is over. Isabel scolds him gently for letting the roast burn. All laugh. His mood is optimistic. Over dinner Orlando talks of his travels to more than 100 countries. He recalls the two countries that had impressed him most: China and Israel. He talks of Israel with a kind of awe, about an experience riding in a jeep with his guide talking very rapidly about the great spirit of the people. We say good night. His street is in quiet residential Bethesda. Next door on one side lives an FBI special agent; on the other a State Department officer. It's the kind of block where people nod good morning and don't get close to each other. It's the kind of block where people don't spend time looking out windows or observing block activities.

September 20, 1976

A workday, Ronni in her new Institute role as fundraiser speaks at a staff meeting. She criticizes some of the Fellows for their lack of cooperation. She nags with a smile on her face. She makes her points without anyone feeling guilty. She reports on the work she has done to begin a major fundraising campaign. Orlando and I meet in the morning and afternoon on administrative matters. I leave him at 6 pm. Michael Moffitt, Ronni's husband, goes to Orlando's office to finish a pamphlet with him. I meet Ronni in the reception room of the Institute. She is also working late, and she tells me that she and Michael are going to the Letelier's for dinner. I warn her against Orlando's cooking. We laugh. I read The Wall Street Journal editorial attacking Orlando's recent article in The Nation. It accuses him of torturing the facts and goes on to tell how well Chile's economy is doing under the guidance of Milton Friedman's disciples and the generals. They ignore Orlando's key points. The economy is not functioning well, but to make it even function at all, torture and murder are necessary. State implements and must be used routinely. Rule by terror is the only way to convert a country that had a tradition of free political parties, labor unions and habits of association. To rule they have killed thousands, tortured thousands, imprisoned hundreds of thousands and sent their best minds - those they didn't murder - into exile. I put The Wall Street Journal down.

I leave as Ronni is leaving, happy about going to dinner, liking her job and loving her husband - she said all this in her walk, her bounce, her sparkle. Ronni's and Michael's car doesn't start. Orlando takes them in his car, a dust-blue Chevelle. They arrive, eat, work. Michael and Ronni drive Orlando's car home. Two Chilean colleagues of Orlando felt funny that day. They saw people watching them and him. Orlando dismissed this as paranoia.

September 21, 1976

8:45 a.m. A strange car is seen parked near the Letelier house. A witness says the man standing near the car is probably Latin American. He appears nervous. Ronni and Michael arrive at the Letelier house at about 8:55 a.m. They enter, wait for Orlando to finish breakfast. He and they leave at 9:15, Orlando driving. Ronni rides in the front, Michael in the back. They proceed down River Road into the District of Columbia and turn south on 46th Street through suburban Washington. Forty-sixth Street joins Massachusetts Avenue, and Orlando turns left, passing the row of embassies and ambassadors' residences. He sees, as he usually does, the Chilean flag flying in front of the house he once used as his residence. As the car passes the Chilean embassy, there is a buzzing sound inside. Then a flash. A tremendous explosion. Michael finds himself, dazed, outside the car as it crashes to a halt, colliding with a VW illegally parked in front of the Irish embassy. He assists his wife, Ronni, her face blackened. She walks a few steps. He assumes she is safe. Orlando is pinned under the car. Michael tries to pull the wreckage from him. The Executive Protection Service direct traffic. Michael sees that Orlando's legs have been severed. He appears barely conscious and in great pain. More police and ambulances arrive. Much confusion ensues. A nurse is assisting Ronni. At the hospital Orlando dies quickly. Ronni's carotid artery has been severed and she drowns in her own blood 20 minutes after Orlando dies. Michael, by a miracle, suffers a minor head wound. In the fraction of a second, and for the rest of his life, fascism will have its most concerete meaning.

Two Metropolitan Police detectives begin to investigate the murders, interviewing people at the Institute. Police dogs sniff their way through the IPS building. Who could have done it? the officers ask. We tell them that the Chilean secret police did it. They scratch their heads. A spontaneous and angry demonstration takes place in front of the Chilean embassy. The crowd is read an ordinance that forbids demonstrating on Embassy Row. The East German ambassador invites the crowd to move onto his property across the street. The police say no to that as well. Rage and outrage combine with grief. The mourners cross the street to the East German property and chant until the police threaten arrest. Thirty-five club-wielding police stare at the mourners. The day seems interminable. Occasional outbursts of tears, sobs wrack everyone. Work is therapy. Manuel Trucco, the Chilean ambassador, accuses Letelier of having tried to bomb the Chilean embassy and of having had the bad luck of it blowing up in his face. The police and FBI determine quickly that the explosive had been placed under the driver's legs. The ambassador says he is now sympathetic to the widow and will cooperate in the investigation.

September 22, 1976

At a rally held at Dupont Circle, a block from the Institute, speeches are made. Rage is expressed. Bev Fisher, speaking for Ronni's co-workers, expresses a widely held feeling about how a woman is treated even in death. Her talk moves many to tears as she recalls Ronni. She says Orlando's death is seen as martyrdom, Ronni's as a tragic accident. It was not an accident. Ronni was not an anonymous victim. Ronni was a committed woman.

September 26, 1976

Several thousand people march from Sheridan Circle, where the murder occurred, to St. Matthew's Cathedral for a requiem mass for Orlando and Ronni. A banner in the front says Orlando lives in the hearts of the people. The banner at the rear denounces fascist oppression. Hortensia Allende and Isabel Letelier, two widows of the struggle, walk in the front. As the marchers pass the spot where Orlando's car came to rest, they lay their flowers in the curbside. Then each mourner raises a fist in anger at the Chilean embassy. A suspected DINA agent is recognized in the crowd taking photographs.

September 22-October 10, 1976

The FBI takes over jurisdiction from the DC Metropolitan Police. The people at the Institute feel apprehensive since IPS has a suit against the FBI for admittedly tapping phones, opening mail and planting informers. Special Agent Cornick assures us, We're on the same side in this one. This does not reassure most at IPS, as FBI agents question members of the Letelier family and IPS staff and Fellows about areas that appear irrelevant. Orlando is buried in Caracas. Ronni is buried in Passaic, New Jersey.
Newsweek's Periscope column publishes an unusual paragraph stating that the CIA is convinced that the Chilean government is not implicated in the assassinations. They conclude this from studying the FBI lab report, which claims the explosive was too crude to be used by the Chilean secret police. What's more, the paragraph continues, the Chilean government, according to the CIA, has too much to lose from such an action. We ask Newsweek where the story comes from. They will not reveal the source. A story appears in the Washington Star that headlines 'Leftists Being Considered in Murder' and 'Martyr Theory Probed'. The Washington Post says that the CIA is cooperating in the investigation and that CIA Director George Bush has met with Stanley Pottinger of the Justice Department. The cooperation remains unclear. IPS people suspect that the CIA is covering itself. The Agency knows who did it, or knew beforehand who did it or is remiss in not knowing. Milton Friedman, chief theoretician of Chile's economic policies, is awarded the Nobel Prize for economics; it does not mention Chile's applications of the theory. US investigators ask Isabel Letelier, on three separate occasions, if the murder of her husband could have been a crime of passion.

October 19, 1976

The Venezuelan daily El Nacional reports that Letelier was murdered by Cuban brothers exiled in the United States. The paper claims a police spokesman as its source. It states that Venezuelan security organizations have uncovered a vast terrorist plan by anti-Castro Cubans in complicity with other right wingers. The plans included a dynamite attack against the Guyanese consulate in Trinidad and the bombing of the Cuban airline on October 6, which took the lives of 73 people. The police in the raid found plans for terrorist attempts also in the United States, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, Panama and Columbia. Sources in Caracas reveal that the Chilean government has been financing the activities of the anti-Castro Cubans abroad. Chile is apparently now using Cuban exiles much as the CIA once used them: for assassination and sabotage.

October 20, 1976, Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuelan police and American FBI officials announce the sudden arrest of a groupd of Cuban exiles who, they say, are responsible for Orlando's and Ronni's murder - as well as the bombing of the Cuban airliner. Two of the key leaders, according to Venezuelan authorities, have formerly worked for and been trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. As I scan the brief article that announces the arrests, I wonder suddenly whether or not I had been wrong: perhaps some trick of fate has inserted Cuban exiles and exempted the Chilean secret police. Then I see who has been arrested as head of this band of exiles: Orlando Bosch, the same man expelled in March from Costa Rica, suspected of plotting the assassination of another Chilean exile. The article mentions in passing that Bosch went to Chile for three months earlier this year, but draws no significance from the fact.

I wonder what will happen at the trial, what stories Bosch will tell.

Epitaph

Two friends and colleagues have been brutally murdered. A third miraculously escaped. His pain and grief will endure with his commitment. It is both easy and difficult to fix the blame. Those who did the job could have been selected from a growing pool of right-wing hoodlums in Latin America. They kill under orders, usually for money. They have sometimes graduated from military or police academies. Some have been trained in the United States at the International Police Academy in Washington DC. Anti-communism to them justifies any kind of behavior. Above them are the men who rule Chile. Many of them also have been trained and educated - if such a word is not too debased - in the United States. They have no justice, law, constitution or reason with which to rule; only terror. They use it at home exclusively and abroad whenever they can. They used it on Orlando and Ronni. Orlando represented all the qualities government should stand for: he was a lawyer who believed in rules and constitutions, his ethic was equality and justice; his means of persuasion and authority was reason. Shortly after the murders Kissinger bragged to the press that he had been responsible for Orlando's release from Dawson Island. But Kissinger also helped put in power the government that tortured and murdered Orlando, and that murdered Ronni. the anger clouds my feelings of loss. The junta had reason to fear Orlando Letelier. In a country under increasing economic pressure, the life of the junta is a qeustionable thing. Whatever the official American fears of communism in the Americas are, the US will not support a cripple forever. Copper, the chief source of Chile's export earnings, has dropped in price. Experts say the low price will continue into the 1980s. Inflation has not been stopped. Unemployment and near-starvation do not make for stable government, no matter how well that government is armed. In Chile's free economy, there are already perceptible signs of change. Milton Friedman now is not boasting about his relationship to the junta but claiming that he only spent a short time in Chile giving lectures and advice. Congress has cut off military aid. It is expected that Congress will soon cut bilateral aid. The generals in Santiago and their advisors are hardly unaware of the future; similarly with the American government. One can safely assume that discussions about transfer of power to civilian government have already occurred and will continue with increasing force. The junta thinks of Trujillo, Diem, the Greek colonels. They smell a shift in the policy from the very people who helped put them in power. They respond with defiance choosing Washington as the site of the murder. Yet, from the American point of view, it is not a question of a free economy safe for investment, free of socialist or communist menace. Generals are expendable; Chile is not.

That is why Orlando was killed. because a return to civilian government - if it is to receive a stamp of legitimacy from other governments and safety for foreign investors - will require elections. And elections that include men and women like Orlando in the opposition could prove troublesome. In Chile thousands have died, including many leaders; but not enough are dead for the junta to feel safe. Especially the kind of people like Orlando Letelier and Bernardo Leighton and Carlos Prats - exiles whose lives have been taken or threatened, who were capable of building coalitions, of uniting parties and factions, of restoring democracy to ten million people from whom it has been stolen.

The dreams of terrible violence come less often now.

Copyright 1976 Mother Jones