The assassination of Orlando Letelier Part One: The exiled voice of resistance to Chile’s dictatorship
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The assassination of Orlando Letelier Part One: The exiled voice of resistance to Chile’s dictatorship

Yesterday marked the 39th anniversary of Chilean Orlando Letelier’s assassination in Washington D.C. at the hands of Chile’s secret police.

On September 21 1976, Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Moffitt, were driving through Sheridan Circle in the U.S. capital when a bomb affixed to their car’s undercarriage detonated, killing both: Muffet’s husband was also in the vehicle but survived.

The incident’s origins can be traced back to 1973 when, in Chile, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected Popular Unity government and their outspoken left-wing President, Salvador Allende.

In the following years the Pinochet dictatorship, governing Chile until 1990, systematically targeted any opposition to the regime.

The brutal crackdown on dissidents saw an estimated 40,000 Chileans, and foreigners, fall victim to the Junta’s detention and torture programs. Official estimates place the numbers of executed or “disappeared” people to be over 3,000.

Exiled resistance

Letelier, a lawyer, economist, politician and diplomat, was one of Allende’s closest advisors and served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense, making him one of Pinochet’s main targets. Among the first to be arrested during the coup, Letelier spent a year imprisoned in a series of detention camps until diplomatic pressure from Venezuela obtained his release.

After a short stint in Venezuela, Letelier relocated to Washington D.C. in 1975 to join an active Chilean expatriate community and immediately began lobbying the US and Europe to cut ties with Pinochet’s regime.

From D.C. Letelier became a vociferous critic of Pinochet, denouncing the regime through his work as a fellow at the Institute of Policy Study and writing for highly influential news outlets, including the New York Times and The Nation.

In one particular polemic piece a month before his eventual assassination in The Nation, Letelier claimed Pinochet’s economic policy – which had been conceived at the University of Chicago by American economist Milton Freedom and championed by US-trained economists commonly referred to as Los Chicago Boys-  was implemented by force against the Chilean public will:

In short, they have failed to destroy the consciousness of the Chilean people. The economic plan has had to be enforced, and in the Chilean context that could be done only by the killing of thousands, the establishment of concentration camps all over the country.

However, more damaging to Pinochet than Letelier’s constant attacks in the media was his involvement in passing the “Kennedy Amendment“, cutting all military aid to Chile in July 1976, just months prior to his assassination. Letelier was also instrumental in the decision of other countries, like The Netherlands, to cut financial ties with Chile.

These activities more than likely proved fatal.

The second part to this story will be available 09/23/2015.

Sources include: Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents New York: The New Press, 2004.

Assassination on Embassy Row, Dinges, John and Landua, Saul Assassination on Embassy Row: Pantheon Books, 1980.

See also:

Pinochet’s “torture ship” protested in London and Amsterdam