Bomb Victim Denounced Policies of Junta in Chile

22 Septiembre 1976

During most of his two years of exile here, after his release from imprisonment on an island near the southern tip of Chile, Orlando Letelier lived a quiet life, studying how the world's wealth could be more equitably distributed.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

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During most of his two years of exile here, after his release from imprisonment on an austere island near the southern tip of Chile, Orlando Letelier lived a quiet life in the Maryland suburbs, studying how the world's wealth could be more equitably distributed and writing a memoir of his years of imprisonment. Friends who had known him before he was confined by the military junta that overthrew the government of the late Salvador Allende, which Letelier had served in several high offices, said he had returned to Washington sobered by his imprisonment. He was still a tall, charming redhead, but much of his rudiness seemed lost. For reasons that may have been connected to circumstances surrounding his release from confinement into exile in the United States, Letelier had been publicly silent about the new regime in Chile for well over a year. It was only in the past few months that Letelier's name began reappearing in headlines as he began to catch attention as a symbol of 'free Chile' - a Chile in exile, opposed to the stridently anti-Marxist regime of the present Chilean president, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. It was because of this attention he was drawing, Letelier's friends and associates said yesterday, that he was murdered when a bomb exploded under his car, also killing one passenger and injuring another. Earlier this month the Pinochet government decreed that Letelier's Chilean citizenship had been taken away 'for' [his] 'interfering with normal financial supports to Chile'.

Since his 1974 exile from Chile, Letelier had worked with the Institute for Policy Studies here, and served as the director of the institute's Transnational Institute, Transnational also operates in the Netherlands, where the Dutch government recently refused to underwrite a $63 million Dutch mining investment planned for Chile. On Sept. 11, the third anniversary of Allende's overthrow by Pinochet's military forces, Letelier spoke at a benefit concert by Joan Baez in Madison Square Garden in New York City, when he strongly attacked the Chilean government for lifting his citizenship. He also spoke of killings and terrorism in Chile and abroad, and of the risks he said so many were taking. [Full text] The benefit was for the Chile Human Rights Committee, which is led by Letelier's wife, Isabel, and is one of scores of Chilean exile groups around the world. One reason Letelier himself gave for the lifting of his citizenship was an article he wrote for the Aug. 28 issue of The Nation magazine. In it, Letelier denounced the economic policies of the junta as a wild experiment in textbook free-enterprise economics played out on a postrate country, resulting in the pauperization of its people. [Full text] Letelier said last week that he felt the article was one reason for putting into effect the decree, drawn up last June, that deprived him of his citizenship. Mark Schneider, a legislative aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that in a conversation with Letelier last Tuesday the Chilean was 'very shaken' because of the tone and language of the decree.

Less than two weeks ago, Letelier met with leaders of both sides of the Chilean exile community here - those who had supported Allende's government, and those were then in opposition - who were now seeking to unify the entire exile community in efforts to overthrow the Pinochet government. 'Orlando didn't align himself with one faction or the other', a close associate said yesterday. 'He was a rallying point for the whole antijunta movement here in Washington - someone that everybody trusted'. Isabel Letelier yesterday called her husband 'a great man whose death will not be in vain. Everything that he tried to do was for the good of his people... one day we will all rest in that good land he loved'. In addition to her activities on behalf of Chilean exiles, Mrs. Letelier worked as a sculptor. An exhibition featuring her work opened last Tuesday at a local P Street art gallery.

The Letelier family has lived for the past year and a half in a split-level, red brick house in the Springfield section of Bethesda, an upper-middle-class area where most homes are valued at around $125,000. Letelier first came to the United States in 1960 as an economist for the Inter-American Development Bank, where he stayed for 10 years and became a director of development projects in South America. His four sons - Christian, 19; Jose, 17; Francisco, 16 and Juan Pablo, 15 - have spent perhaps more time in the United States than in their own country. It was while he was at the bank that Letelier first developed the diplomatic and academic ties that were to serve him well when he became Chile's ambassador to the United States in February, 1971. He had been back in Santiago several months before to work in the Allende government there. During the Allende years, Ambassador Letelier returned frequently for consultation in Chile, where the local headlines, as often as not, attacked US economic pressures against Allende and denounced US Central Intelligence Agency plots. Despite the passions unleashed by rising crises, Letelier seemed to maintain a profound respect for the US government and always seemed to feel that its intentions toward Allende were honorable. In a Washington Post interview last year, Letelier said that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had taken the initiative to assure him personally in late 1971 that the CIA was not involved in any internal Chilean problem, assurances that Letelier passed on to Allende. The subsequent public record, however, clearly indicates involvement by CIA.

In 1973, when the Allende government was crumbling and Letelier was called back to Santiago to serve first as foreign minister, then as minister of the interior, and finally as minister of defense, he told intimate friends in Washington that he saw little hope the government would survive. Letelier was arrested Sept. 11, 1973 - the day of the Pinochet coup and just 12 days after he had been appointed Allende's minister of defense. He was taken to several military camps before finally being transferred to Dawson Island, an icy, windblown encampment just above Antarctica in the Straits of Magellan. No charges were ever brought against him. Luis Reque, a Bolivian who was then executive secretary for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, visited Letelier twice during his Chilean imprisonment. Letelier was 'calm, tranquil', Reque said yesterday. 'He thought that eventually there would be justice and he would be able to leave and to dedicate himself to his profession as an economist'.

Through international publicity on the detainment of political prisoners by the junta, and diplomatic efforts by Venezuela and the United States, among others, Letelier was finally released after 364 days of confinement. After a brief stay in Venezuela, he returned to Washington to take a position as visiting professor at American University. His family, which had been under house arrest in Santiago during his imprisonment, joined him soon afterward.

Although not teaching at American this term, Letelier was still on the university's staff. Most of his time recently had been spent at the Transnational Institute, where he was researching material on an international economic project with Michael Moffitt, the young economist who was traveling to work with his wife and Letelier yesterday morning when the bomb exploded. 'I don't think Orlando Letelier had a personal enemy in the world', Saul Landau, coordinator of the Transnational Institute said yesterday after Letelier's death. 'He was a warm, family man who had a great interest in public affairs'.

Isabel Letelier returned alone yesterday afternoon to the Letelier house in Bethesda. On a table in the living room is a photograph, with an inscription in Spanish that reads: 'To Isabel and Orlando for all the things you have done. With affection and gratitude, Salvador Allende'.

Copyright 1976 The Washington Post