Long before September 21, 1976, far from home in Washington, DC, Orlando Letelier’s wife Isabel had experienced a political transformation. Through law school friends, some from Venezuela during its era of dictatorship from 1948 to 1958, “I got my political education,” Isabel Letelier recently recalled. “It was the first time I had ever really heard about dictatorship and torture, about corporations keeping more than their share, about nationalization of natural resources. Orlando himself was talking about copper belonging to the Chileans. . . . That was an awakening.”
She told Orlando she considered herself on the “Christian left,” but she couldn’t find a party to join.
Letelier remembered his second year of university as his own awakening. “The truth is that, when I was young, politics mattered little to me, even less so socialism.” As he read more and had long discussions with Salvador Allende, then a senator, and others, he grew a social conscience and joined the Socialist Party. Early on in their relationship, he told Isabel that finding out about the extraction of copper, Chile’s primary export, by foreign corporations was “a blow to my heart.”
Allende lost the 1958 presidential election but kept running in the 1960s. Letelier’s connection to the Marxist, however, spelled personal disaster. Not only was he fired from the copper department where he worked, but also he was told, “Do not waste any time trying to find a job with this government. You are not going to find a job from north to south. You are being punished for being a traitor to your class. This is a lesson you should learn now when you are young.” The Leteliers were resourceful. Three months after Letelier lost his job, in late 1959, he and the family left for Venezuela, where his exiled friends were now back and in power and offered him a position with the Vollmer Group doing market studies. Soon after, the governments of the Americas created the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, and its first president happened to be Letelier’s former law professor, Felipe Herrera. He offered Orlando a job.
At 3 AM one day in late 1970, the whole clan at Chile Chico, the Leteliers’ cottage in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, was awakened by Isabel’s shouts: “Allende won!”
Their old Chilean friend, the physician, senator, and head of a leftist coalition called Popular Unity, had pulled off the feat of winning Chile’s presidency while openly Marxist.
Letelier, following the results from Washington, immediately drove out to the Shenandoah Valley, honking his horn as he approached the property. Isabel and he hugged.
“I’ve decided to resign my post at the IDB —”
Isabel cut him off: “— We’re going back to Chile!?”
Not quite. Orlando did fly back, and Isabel began to pack up the house. Upon his return to Washington, however, he announced a change of plans. “How great that you’ve got everything ready, but the trip will be a bit shorter than planned. Instead of changing countries, we’re changing states: from Maryland to Washington!”
Allende had named Orlando, among his most loyal followers, Chile’s new ambassador to the United States. In February 1971, the Leteliers moved from the suburb of Bethesda to the ambassador’s residence inside the District of Columbia, on Massachusetts Avenue, beginning three tumultuous years that mirrored those in Chile.
The Right Man for the Job
Allende’s Marxist agenda was on a collision course with Washington’s. His very victory showed a democratic path to socialism that challenged US interests. Once in office, he became friendly with Cuba and other communist regimes. Allende also planned to nationalize US-owned copper mines.
In retaliation, the Richard Nixon government, through its CIA and its national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, first tried to prevent Allende’s confirmation as president by plotting the kidnapping of the Chilean army commander in chief who oversaw it. Nixon also told his CIA to “make the economy scream.”
When the gambit failed and Allende ascended to the presidency’s La Moneda Palace, the Nixon team installed what Allende called “the invisible blockade” with the help of US corporations. The ruthless campaign of propaganda, diplomatic pressure, and economic sabotage, fueled by tens of millions of dollars in CIA funds, aimed to turn Chileans against their president and foment a military coup.
Letelier, as ambassador, advised his president to avoid confrontation with the United States, which provided half of Chile’s industrial supplies and nearly all its military equipment. He was the right man for the job, being, as the CIA assessed in 1971, “a reasonable, mature democrat with a profound belief that Allende would revolutionize the structure of Chile without interfering with fundamental liberties or traditions.”
Washington seemed to respond in kind. Nixon claimed to respect Chile’s self-determination. Kissinger labeled “nonsense” press reports that the White House sought to confront Chile. One US diplomat recalled that most Latin America experts in his shop “had very good opinions of Letelier.” Even Kissinger said of Letelier, “I knew him. I liked him personally.”
But the Nixon administration felt tremendous pressure from US businesses. It was also on the warpath against communism.
First, it delayed for several months accepting Letelier’s appointment as ambassador. In July 1971, Chile nationalized three US copper mines. In October, it announced it would offer no compensation because of “excess profits” over the years.
Retaliation was swift. In mid-August, the US Export-Import Bank president Henry Kearns called Letelier to his office. Kearns was smiling as he delivered chilling news: the bank would not finance $21 million worth of Boeing jet airliners so long as Chile did not compensate the copper companies. In 1972, another Letelier deal fell through, to reschedule $300 million in debt to US banks.
To make matters worse, secrets about US efforts to keep Allende from the presidency leaked, and the ambassador’s residence and chancery were broken into five times. Two of the burglars, apparently seeking sensitive documents, were also involved in Watergate. Letelier took to keeping documents in a bedroom closet because the CIA also bugged his embassy.
The Warnings Were Accurate
By September 1973, Orlando had become minister of defense, and the Leteliers were back in Chile. At 6:22 AM on September 11, the Leteliers’ phone woke Isabel. She answered and turned to Orlando: “It’s Salvador.” Her husband had only fallen asleep three hours earlier, worried about intelligence reports of a coup. The warnings were accurate.
“The navy has revolted,” announced Allende. “Six truckloads of navy troops are on the way to Santiago from Valparaíso. The Carabineros are the only units that respond. The other commanders in chief don’t answer the phone. Pinochet doesn’t answer. Find out what you can.”
A Ministry of Defense admiral reassured Letelier: “It’s some kind of a raid, nothing more.” Allende was skeptical. “Take control of the Defense Ministry if you can get there.”
Isabel walked with her husband to his car. His bodyguard had called in sick, but his driver was waiting. Isabel took the man by his lapels: “You take care that nothing happens to him.”
At 7:30 AM, Letelier arrived, unarmed, at his ministry across the street from the presidential palace. Troops surrounded his building, and officers and some armed civilians wore orange scarves, denoting coup plotters. A guard at the door would not let him pass, but a voice from inside shouted, “Let the minister in.” Upon entering, Orlando felt a sharp rifle butt poke his back ribs. His allegedly sick bodyguard held the rifle.
Isabel learned where Orlando ended up only weeks after the coup. “Dawson Island, it is a dreadful place. It is very cold, windy . . . and because of the cold current, the Humboldt Current. . . Nobody lives there.”
Orlando Letelier did, for eight months.
The concentration camp where Letelier and his fellow political prisoners were kept was fenced off by a double row of barbed wire and surrounded by guards armed with antiaircraft guns in watchtowers. Letelier lived in an eight-by-fifteen-foot room with seven other men. To lighten the mood, they christened it “El Sheraton.”
The United Nations Human Rights Commission called the treatment of the Dawson prisoners “barbaric sadism.” The decisive intermediary in freeing Letelier was Caracas governor Diego Arria. He was the right-hand man of Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez and longtime friend of Orlando.
Arria’s stature had risen to the point where, in 1974, Time featured him among a select group of world leaders. Still, it was unprecedented for a governor to take on a diplomatic mission. He flew to Santiago on September 10, 1974 and obtained an interview with Pinochet.
The Venezuelan first spoke of a cut-rate sale of his country’s oil to Chile. “This depends upon your freeing Orlando Letelier.”
One month after Letelier flew from Santiago to Caracas, Richard Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC, wrote to “Compañero Letelier.” Following up on a phone call from Saul Landau, he offered him an associate fellowship “to work with the Latin American work group and to develop ideas about hemispheric security.” Letelier accepted.
Letelier informed Barnet he would concentrate on Chilean affairs. He immediately regained his boundless energy for working — and networking. This, despite Pinochet’s henchmen warning him to stay quiet and reminding him that the dictator could mete out punishment “no matter where the violator lives.”
“I Never Learned What the Surprise Was”
“Isabel, I have a surprise for you. Have lunch with me.”
“Today will be difficult. I have work.”
“But you will love this surprise,” Orlando insisted. “Come and get me at 12:30 and leave your work for the afternoon.”
Isabel acceded. After all, her husband was a charmer. The couple, parents to four teenage boys, had recently reunited after a months-long separation sparked by Orlando’s infidelity. “A second honeymoon,” Isabel called it.
Besides, there was no time to argue. It was 9 AM on September 21, 1976, time for Orlando to go to work at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle.
Two of Orlando’s colleagues happened to ride with him that day. Michael and Ronni Moffitt, both twenty-five and recently married, had had their car break down the day before. Having become friends with their mentor and his wife, they had enjoyed a late dinner at the Leteliers’ then driven home in Orlando’s car. They were back the following morning to pick him up.
The Moffitts waited while Letelier, ever tardy, showered and dressed, skipped breakfast, and rushed out the door. Isabel barely had time to kiss him goodbye. Michael offered to keep driving, but Orlando took the wheel of his 1975 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu Classic, an unusual muscle car for such a sophisticate. Out of gallantry, Michael opened the front passenger door for Ronni. He plopped himself on the back seat.
That morning was a drizzly, misty one in the nation’s capital. In less than an hour, Orlando and Ronni would be dead. Michael would be traumatized.
“I never learned what the surprise was,” Isabel recalled over forty years later.