Tribute to Orlando Letelier

Orlando Letelier was TNI's second director and a former Chilean government minister under Allende. He was murdered 40 years ago on the orders of the dictator Pinochet. Susan George recalls the day she heard of his assassination and pays tribute to the man and his lasting legacy.


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Orlando Letelier was a Chilean patriot. Today many Americans and probably most readers of The Nation have problems with the very notion of patriotism: how can progressives be proud of their country’s repeated military intervention, endless wars, police brutality, gross racial inequity, overflowing prisons, vast income disparities, 30,000 people killed by guns in a single year…  The best most can do is to feel patriotism for the United States that could be, that was meant to be and that they fight for.   

Orlando also possessed the characteristics of the romantic hero, a genre now extinct, or nearly.  Not movie-star handsome, but dashing and charismatic.  When you knew what he had been through—arrest, a series of concentration camps, severe torture, prison on Dawson Island and finally exile from his beloved country-- yet retained his enthusiasm, even his sense of humour, you have a sense of the man.

He was profoundly political.   A Socialist from his high-school days onwards, he was a fervent supporter of Salvador Allende from the outset.  Forced to leave Chile, even from exile he continued to fight against the horrors of the Pinochet regime and decided to return to Washington where he had been Allende’s Ambassador.   There he became a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies [IPS].  He was also named Director of the fledgling Transnational Institute [TNI] in Amsterdam founded by IPS in 1974 and then run from Washington.  The common project linking the two institutes was the New International Economic Order which was supported by many independent, non-aligned governments in what we then called the “Third World”.  At the time it seemed highly promising until President Reagan crushed all hope of a NIEO as soon as he took office.     

A month before he was murdered, Orlando came to a TNI Fellows meeting in Amsterdam.  His unpublicised mission in Holland was to persuade the Dutch government to cancel a multi-million dollar loan to Pinochet.  He succeeded and at TNI we have always believed that this was the last straw for the fascist government in his homeland.  It certainly seems to have been the trigger for the order from Santiago to assassinate Letelier, still acting as an Ambassador for the true Chile.

I cannot forget that afternoon in September 1976 when I received a telephone call from a Chilean friend I had tried to help, along with other political refugees from Chile in Paris, with practical matters.  I said “Jorge—how very nice to hear from you”.   He replied simply, “Orlando Letelier was murdered this morning.  A car bomb.  In the middle of Washington”.  He gave me the details as they were then known but we both knew this was the vicious work of the junta and the secret police DINA.

In Madison Square Garden eleven days earlier, Orlando had proclaimed:  “I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean and I will die a Chilean.  They were born traitors, they live as traitors and they will be known forever as fascist traitors”.

These were the words of a patriot; his true epitaph.

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