Assassination on Embassy Row: 34 years later

05 October 2010

Remembering Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt 34 years after their assassination by Chile's secret police.

September 21, 1976, 9:45 am. My home phone buzzed. “I just saw the worst accident,” my wife said. “Smoke coming from the car, metal and maybe parts of a body and cops running madly around Sheridan Circle.” She had arrived there on route to work further down Massachusetts Avenue.

Minutes later, the Institute for Policy Studies receptionist phoned. Amidst moans and shrieks she informed me, “Orlando dead, Ronni hospital. Come to the Institute.”

The taxi driver knew to skirt Sheridan Circle, which the police had closed. The FBI had already moved a giant vacuum into the area to collect “evidence.”

At IPS the staff sobbed or stared vacantly into space as the gory details emerged. A bomb had exploded under the car of Orlando Letelier three blocks from IPS, on Connecticut and Q Street. Letelier’s legs were separated from his torso. Ronni Moffitt, sitting in the front passenger seat, had also died, her artery apparently severed by a piece of metal. Michael Moffitt, Ronni’s husband, seated in the back, got blown out the door and suffered minor injuries.

Two years later, the FBI identified the key members of the plot: Col. Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA, Chile’s secret police, two other officers and his designated foreign hit man Michael Townley. The FBI arrested Townley in Chile and in exchange for a plea bargain – light sentence – he told him how he had received orders from his superiors and then recruited five right wing Cuban exiles to do the actual bombing.

The key FBI Agents and a prosecutor all publicly named Pinochet for having ordered the assassination. His name never appeared on an indictment. All the others faced some form of trial in the United States or Chile.

As the FBI collected testimony and details, I imagined and dreamed of Orlando’s car driving down Massachusetts Avenue, hearing the hiss that Michael Moffitt heard, seeing the flash of the primary detonator and smelling its acrid odor as the car reached Sheridan Circle and exploded.

Virgilio Paz pushed the buttons on the remote control detonator knowing Ronni and Michael were in the car. Hey, he had to get back to his job in New Jersey selling used cars.

In 1991, after “America’s Most Wanted” re-enacted Paz’ role in the Letelier-Moffitt bombing, someone phoned a to a U.S. Customs agent, who notified the FBI. Paz got busted, pled guilty, received a 12 year sentence and served seven years before getting parole. He lives in a Florida condo. Guillermo Novo, honcho of the Cuban exile gang, was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate a former foreign official and sentenced to life. An appellate court overturned the conviction. In a second trial, the jury acquitted him of conspiracy. He walked.

In 1999, Panamanian police arrested Novo along with Luis Posada and two other whose rental car carried pounds of explosives. The four had planned to assassinate Fidel Castro who was scheduled to speak there. Days before her term ended, Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned them. Coincidentally, several million dollars had been deposited to her overseas bank account.

Ronni Moffitt would be 59-years-old, Letelier 79. I wonder about how many interesting and useful things they would have done in the elapsing 34 years.

Three weeks before the bomb exploded, Letelier, an economist and political leader in Chile’s Socialist Party, had written a devastating critique of Milton Friedman’s “miracle” market economics (“The Chicago Boys in Chile, The Nation, August 28, 1976). He had recently become director of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, IPS’ sister research center, and was planning to expand its influence.

In March 1976, Letelier had briefed Congressmen Tom Harkin (D-IA), George Miller (D-CA) and Toby Moffett (D-CT). The three traveled to Chile, saw the brutal repression and returned to steer the passage of the Harkin Amendment, cutting off U.S. aid to Chile. Orlando did help isolate the regime of General Augusto Pinochet, the man who led the bloody coup ousting Chile’s elected president, Dr. Salvador Allende. Pinochet had banished Letelier to a concentration camp near the South Pole before releasing him to Venezuela a year later.

Ronni told me about how wonderful the music sounded from poor people who borrowed instruments at her “music carry-out.” She had taught school and had infinite plans to make the world better. She and Michael had married only four months before. She would be 59 years old.

After 34 years, the events of September 21, 1976, return in my thoughts and dreams. I concluded that evil people, the killers, justified their homicidal proclivities with anti-communist and anti-Castro babble. But murdering my friends and colleagues had nothing to do with communism or Castro. Killers kill. They enjoy practicing their vocation.

They have not read John Donne’s words: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” The Bells toll for Orlando and Ronni.