The Tireless Lobby

11 June 2000
Article

The former colleagues of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt - in the NGO where they worked at the time of the assassination - have politically and emotionally pressured Chilean and North American authorities in order to achieve the extradition of the General.

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Qué Pasa

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Juan Gabriel Valdés, the present Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) and former Foreign Minister during the administration of Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagle, could have ridden, as he habitually did, in the same car as Orlando Letelier on the 21 of September, 1976, the day of the assassination attempt in Sheridan Circle. Instead, those who accompanied Letelier on his journey to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) were his colleagues from the Institute, Ronni and Michael Moffitt. Thus, several hours later, Valdés was shocked by the tragedy that had taken place: a bomb had caused the vehicle to explode.

The explosive, located below Letelier's feet on the driver's side, mangled his body, causing him a slow and painful death - he remained conscious for at least twenty minutes before dying. Michael Moffitt was thrown out of the backseat of the car and landed on the front lawn of the Irish Embassy, where he regained consciousness within a few minutes. In the mean time, his wife Ronni walked several steps before collapsing, bleeding profusely due to the shrapnel embedded in her neck. Ronni Moffitt died 20 minutes after Letelier.

The detonation was heard clearly throughout all of Embassy Row - the avenue where all the embassies are located - and especially in the residence of the Chilean Ambassador, located less than 200 meters from the exact location of the assassination, in Sheridan Circle.

The crime caused a terrible shock among the members of the Institute, who had considered Allende's former minister to be their friend and colleague since he joined the organization in December of 1974. Because of this, for almost 24 years, the members of the organization have relentlessly lobbied to bring the case to justice, an effort that has recently been reflected in the aggressive activity of the past several months by the US Department of Justice to extradite General Augusto Pinochet to the United States.

Venezuelan authorities requested that General Augusto Pinochet release Letelier from Dawson's Island (la Isla de Dawson) where he was being detained. Peter Weiss, who was then President of IPS's Board of Directors, extended an invitation to Letelier, asking him to come to Washington to study US-Chile relations. It was an auspicious trip for Letelier, who, in the spring of 1976, was named the Director of the Transnational Institute, IPS's sister organization located in Amsterdam. While Director of the Institute, Letelier continued working in the United States capital, visiting Holland several times a year.

His friends remember that Letelier used to humorously relate stories to his colleagues, such as Saul Landau - author of the book Assassination on Embassy Row - or Marcus Raskin, about the relationship he had with Pinochet. According to Landau, one of his favorite anecdotes demonstrated the degree to which Pinochet was always servile in Letelier's presence. He was like that man who, after cutting your hair in the barber shop, follows you and brushes off your back, and doesn't stop until you give him a tip. It made everyone laugh, remembered Landau.

But the cheerful anecdotes of Letelier's colleagues transformed into feelings of impotence and rage against the then commanding Chief of the Chilean army. The day that the bomb exploded, I remembered with bitterness the times that we had made fun of and laughed at Pinochet, wrote Landau.

Juan Gabriel Valdés, who worked for IPS between 1976 and 1977, had the same feelings of indignation. At least, this is what he represented in a speech that he gave before a large audience in the Casa de Chile, in Mexico, during the commemoration of the anniversary of Letelier's death. In this speech, Valdés not only paid homage to the deceased, remembering his personal characteristics with nostalgia, but he also commemorated his work, remembering his political contributions during the last days of his life to the work of the Chilean resistance in the United Sates (...). As the director of the Transnational Institute, Letelier coordinated studies and investigations to demonstrate that the economic models imposed on the southern cone of Latin America were directly linked to the political behavior of the fascist governments (...). He carried his message to Europe and the Third World. Because of his effectiveness Pinochet ordered his assassination.

The important words of this young socialist, compatriot, and friend of Letelier were deeply absorbed by the staff of IPS. Along with them, Valdés was one of the few that had suffered the shock of Letelier's death. Because of this, and perhaps because of his strong words against Pinochet, Marcus Raskin, co-founder and present director of IPS, still cannot explain the changes that Valdés underwent over the years. Raskin doesn't mince words when referring to the 'transformation' of his former colleague. He interprets all of the 'operation return' of Pinochet to Chile, led by Valdés while he was the Foreign Minister to Eduardo Frei, as a true 'betrayal of principles'.

When speaking of the matter, he seems to be resigned to it. Well, one's social role is defined by one's actions, he assured Que Pasa.

A short time after Valdés assumed his position in the Ministry, Raskin sent him a letter, in August of 1999, with the upcoming visit that the Foreign Minister was to make to the United States in mind. In his letter, he commented that returning to Washington must feel simultaneously strange and exhilarating: strange because you - as do I - recall those days 23 years ago when you and our other Chilean colleagues and friends came to the Institute and quickly became part of the IPS community. [...] Of course it was a terrible time for all of us after the murders of Ronni and Orlando. But it also must be fulfilling for you to return as Foreign Minister from a free nation [...] Without pretense, Raskin's message to Valdés signaled his hope that, at some point, Pinochet would be extradited to the US or be brought to justice in other countries, nations that have highly developed judicial systems. Chile - he continued - is challenged with the possibility of being the first [nation] to affirm the international law of personal responsibility for political leaders - laws that have their roots in domestic criminal law and the Nuremberg judgments.

In addition, Raskin mentioned to him in the letter that Ronni and Letelier had been both of their colleagues, and that for their sake, the case needed to be brought to justice: you may remember that Ronni had been my assistant. Nevertheless, Valdés never responded to his letter.

A month later, in September of 1999, in New York, the Foreign Minister attended an assembly at the United Nations, accompanied another Foreign Ministry official, Alberto van Klaveren. While Valdés contended in the UN auditorium - before representatives of 188 countries - that Spain should cease to apply extraterritorial laws, Van Klaveren promised to monitor the progress of the Letelier case in the United States. The diplomatic functionary met with the lawyer representing the Letelier family, Samuel Buffone, and other important people related to the case to make sure that the movement toward bringing Pinochet to justice in the United States wouldn't impede his negotiations with London. As a part of these efforts, Van Klaveren implied that the United States would only be able to bring charges against Pinochet once he had returned to Chile.

However, in August, on his first official visit as Foreign Minister to the United States - the visit that inspired Raskin's letter -, Valdés met not only with Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, but he also paid a visit to lay flowers at the Sheridan Circle monument that memorializes the assassination of Letelier. At the ceremony that took place there, he recalled, emotionally moved, that he had visited Letelier only ten days before his assassination.

While Valdés attempted to carry out the mission to arrange for Pinochet's return to Chile, assigned to him by President Frei, IPS was a year into their new campaign: Bring Pinochet to Justice coordinated by Stacie Jonas. After the arrest of Pinochet, the Institute initiated a full time offensive - in addition to the efforts they had carried out over the years - through the creation of a website and through involvement in various other activities. Pinochet's arrest revived the memory of Ronni and Orlando's assassination for the American people, some of whom had forgotten about the case, assured Jonas.

Since then, IPS has transformed itself into the principal lobbying group in favor of Pinochet's extradition to the United States. In fact, upon entering the website, www.ips-dc.org, various things are suggested. The objective of the campaign is to mobilize the American people in support of bringing Pinochet to justice. The web page not only offers information about the case, but also, through a link called Pinochet Watch, explains how to write letters, providing several templates as examples, to petition the government to call for Pinochet's extradition.

In addition, every year the organization presents an award to two groups or individuals that have made outstanding contributions to the defense of human rights. In 1999, the award was given to Joan Garcés, known by his friends at the Institute as Juan, who worked at IPS between 1988 and 1990 on a project about the Cold War.

Despite the fact that IPS is an institute that was founded 37 years ago with the objective of developing a series of programs related to the economy, the environment and poverty, the truth is that, upon arriving at the 10th floor of building number 733, between 15th and H streets, in Washington, D.C., it seems that September 21, 1976, has remained frozen on their walls. The staff meetings about the Institute's various programs proceed normally, but in every corner there is a poster, each commemorating a different anniversary of the deaths of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. In addition, there is a panel that exhibits all the work done for the Orlando Letelier School, located in the community of El Bosque, in Chile, a school that has received contributions from IPS. Also decorating the walls are various prints by the Uruguayan artist, Naul Ojeda, who never explains the significance of his drawings, saying, draw your own conclusions.

The way in which the friends and colleagues of Letelier remember the case also denotes that they are still not able to get over it. The last time that I was with Orlando was Saturday, the 19th of September, that is, two days before his assassination. He had come over to my house, and we were singing and playing the guitar. Everything was very pleasant, and the only thing he complained about was that his car was making strange noises, commented Marcus Raskin to Que Pasa. A descendent of Russian immigrants, Raskin is convinced that Letelier was assassinated due to his political influence. Orlando was a man who had many contacts in Washington and he talked to all of them about what was happening in Chile. He was a very dangerous man to Pinochet, he insisted. Together with Landau, whose detective skills he praised, Raskin proposed to find Letelier's assassins. We have spent our money and thousands of hours of our time for this cause, he commented. In addition, various members of IPS were present the day the documents from various US governmental agencies that refer to materials related to Chile were declassified, an event that took place in 1999, and they initiated a parallel investigation into the matter.

IPS has also interested other organizations in their cause. In a letter sent to Bill Clinton, the 26 of May, a group of 36 members of the US Congress requested that the President call for full cooperation from his Chilean colleague, Ricardo Lagos, at the upcoming Third Way Conference in Berlin, in explaining and clarifying the facts around the Letelier case. The letter categorically signaled that if the evidence indicated that Pinochet was responsible for the murder, the US should solicit his extradition.

It is not the first time that these congressmen - encouraged by IPS - have written to Clinton or to the State Department and the Justice Department about the Pinochet case. One of those leading this group is Congressman George Miller, who has been sending letters to the government since 1998. Among the few responses that he has received from Clinton, there is one dated June 3, 1998. In this note, the President assures Miller that it is his administration's mission to, pursue these terrorist acts, and at the very least, to prosecute the two individuals being tried for this case.

Miller's interest in the case stems from the close relationship he had with Letelier. In the spring of 1976, Letelier met with congressmen Tom Harkin, George Miller, and Toby Moffet in preparation for their planned trip to Chile. Harkin, upon his return, proposed a resolution to cease US aid to Chile in protest of the human rights violations being committed there. Several weeks later, Letelier was assassinated.

However, lobbying is not the only current activity around the Pinochet case. Samuel Buffone, the lawyer representing the Letelier and Moffitt families, is convinced that there exists sufficient evidence to call for Pinochet's extradition, though he recognizes that it is the prosecutors that traveled to Chile - John Beaseley and John Williams van Lonkhuyz -who should present the evidence before the grand jury.

There have, however, been many rumors about the case in reference to the FBI agents who traveled to Chile this past April, including rumors that they met with General Manuel Contreras in Punta Peuco and received valuable testimonies. They can start an extra-judicial investigation with voluntary witnesses, and at least from what I understand, they aren't standing around Santiago with their arms crossed, a high official from the Justice Department assured Qué Pasa. In fact, the influential daily newspaper The Washington Post published an article on May 28 indicating that the prosecutors had compiled sufficient evidence that would allow them to pursue the extradition of Pinochet.

However, if the United States ends up requesting the extradition of Pinochet and others implicated in the case, the order must first come from the Department of Justice, which itself has to receive permission from the State Department. The State Department, or rather, Madeline Albright, has the last word on the matter, but if there were a disagreement, Clinton would be the one to resolve it. It is no secret that there exists a great deal of friction between the two departments; while the Justice Department wants to earn praise for the case, the State Department tends be more concerned with bilateral relations. Upon observing these two departments, it is clear that their opinions differ: some want to resolve the case while others claim that the assassination is an issue that is too complex and too intricate to resolve. In any case, the signals coming from Washington seem to lean toward the first point of view. It is believed that in the next release of declassified documents - scheduled for several months from now - the government will not divulge the information relevant to the Letelier case, but will instead only hand over the documents to the investigators, so as not to jeopardize the investigation. Another powerful sign is that just as in the Supreme Court, the Court of the District of Columbia has a team of more than 20 people working on the case - which is more people than there were trying to solve the crime in the 70's.


Ronni and Michael Moffitt

The day Ronni Karpen and Michael Moffitt were married - only four months before the assassination - something very strange happened during the ceremony. Ronni had decided to have the wedding outdoors and as they were signing the marriage certificate, a gust of wind came and blew the papers away. This amusing incident is now interpreted by her family as a bad omen. Michael and Ronni met at the Institute for Policy Studies. She was a professor and had founded a school in a poor area of Washington, D.C., but her new job as fundraiser for the Institute suited her.

Michael Moffitt was only 27 years old when his wife - two years younger - died. The man was in pieces, remembers his colleague, Marcus Raskin, although he continued to work for IPS, but never managed to recover. It's been years since Moffitt has stopped talking about this and appearing in the press. Instead he opted for a new life in New York with his second wife and son as a NYSE runner. I know that he is well and we got together last year when Pinochet was detained in London to give a press conference, commented Murray Karpen, father of Ronni, to Qué Pasa. At that time, we turned to the British embassy and we interviewed a high official who explained the legal proceedings of the case. He also mentioned that there was a definite possibility that he could get out on humanitarian grounds. Because of this, when Pinochet was released, I was not surprised.

Ronni's father recognizes that he is already 72 years old and has waited a very long time for justice to be brought to his daughter's assassin. I saw her only two weeks before the bombing, she invited my wife and myself to see her new house, and later we talked on the phone. Although Murray does not have high hopes for the extradition of Pinochet to the United States, he assures that he doesn't die without justice having been done.

The NGO that never forgets

In the heart of Washington, DC a group of 'progressive' professionals offers programs for social change. It's the Institute for Policy Studies, an NGO that is not unknown to Chile, because it was the last place where Orlando Letelier worked before the attack. At a time when other Think tanks celebrate the virtues of unrestrained greed, unlimited wealth, and unregulated markets, IPS is striving to create a more responsible society - one built around the values of justice, nonviolence, sustainability, and decency. This is how they describe the members of this organization, a description that denotes the fact that they feel special and somehow unique in this medium. Their slogan is 'An Institute for the rest of us'. And although they highlight their pacifist character, they do not forgive the killers of their x-colleagues: Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

Through books, articles, films, conferences and the education of activists, the Institute offers programs on the global economy, peace and security, as well as others. But the theme of human rights is an important link. Annually, the organization gives the Letelier-Moffitt prize for human rights in memory of the attack, in addition to producing publications, which is Saul Landau's forte, who was decorated with the Edgar prize for his book Assassination on Embassy Row.