Striking at the heart of power

Orlando Letelier was assassinated in Washington, D.C. by DINA, the secret police organization of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. These are my impressions of the funeral march, along with some background on politics in Chile.


Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970. He was a Socialist. Chileans who were wealthy and powerful did not like him. Neither did the US corporations that did business in Chile, like ITT, Anaconda Copper and Kennecott.

They were frightened by Allende’s concern for the workers and the poor. They were afraid Allende might nationalize their facilities, support worker’s unions, and stop the exploitation of Chile’s natural resources.

Because US corporations didn’t like Allende, neither did the US government. The Nixon White House tried to isolate Chile financially. The CIA spent millions of dollars sowing chaos, trying to disrupt Allende’s plans. They channeled money to violent fascist groups, bribed politicians and the media to oppose Allende’s programs, and financed opposition politician’s campaigns. The CIA instigated strikes, terrorist attacks and assassinations in Chile.

Augusto Pinochet

The CIA’s work finally paid off in September 1973 when the Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, staged a successful coup d’état during which Allende was killed.

Pinochet then cracked down hard on leftists, unions, human rights groups and other political opponents. Tens of thousands of Chileans were arrested, killed and forced into exile.

With the help of the CIA Pinochet set up his own terrorist/intelligence agency—DINA. DINA’s goal was to eliminate unions and other dissident elements, making the country safe for the development of “pure capitalism.” DINA terrorized the population using arrests, torture and “disappearances.”

General Pinochet did not confine his terrorist tactics to Chile’s borders. All over the world there were Chileans living in exile who represented a threat to Pinochet’s power. General Carlos Prats, a former Allende Defense Minister who remained sympathetic to the cause, was writing a book about the Chilean government while exiled in Argentina. In September 1974 he and his wife were assassinated by a car bomb placed by DINA agents. Bernardo Leighton was a Chilean Christian Democrat living in Rome who wanted to set up a parallel government in exile. In September 1975 he and his wife were shot and seriously wounded by an unknown gunman.

Now it was September 1976 and Pinochet wanted more victims to help celebrate the third anniversary of his coup.

Orlando Letelier

Orlando Letelier had been a high-ranking official in the Allende government. After the coup he spent a year in one of Pinochet’s many concentration camps before being ejected from Chile. In 1975 he began working for the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a think tank in Washington, D.C. The position at IPS gave Letelier the opportunity to travel the world, lobbying against investment in Chile and encouraging countries to institute sanctions against the Pinochet regime.

On September 21, 1976, Orlando Letelier drove to work along with two other IPS employees—Michael Moffitt and his wife Ronni.

As the car entered Sheridan Circle, only a few blocks from the White House, it exploded.

The lower part of Letelier’s body was blown off. He died instantly. Flying metal fragments ripped open Ronni Moffitt’s carotid artery, filling her lungs with blood. She died a short time later. Michael Moffitt, who was in the back seat, was only slightly injured.

DINA had struck again with a car bomb. Pinochet’s arrogance—carrying out a terrorist attack in the capital city of his most important ally—must have shocked even his most loyal supporters in the US.


I was living in Washington, D.C. when Orlando Letelier was murdered, so I was able to participate in a hastily organized protest funeral march. The procession was to begin in a small plaza and end up at the cathedral where the Letelier/Moffitt funeral service was being held. I couldn’t believe how many people showed up on that sunny September afternoon—there were thousands.

Marching slowly through the streets of Washington, the mood was solemn and defiant.

As we walked through Sheridan Circle, people added to the growing pile of flowers marking the spot where the murders had taken place. Occasionally the crowd would burst forth with a call and response chant:

“Compañero Orlando Letelier.”
“Y Siempre.”

As the afternoon wore on, dark clouds rolled in. By the time we got to the cathedral the sky was black and angry. Public address speakers were set up outside for those of us who could not get into the service. Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the church, standing in silence while the eulogies were spoken. Halfway through, a light rain began to fall. No one left.

When the service was over, the music began. As they carried out the caskets Joan Bias began singing “We Shall Overcome.” She sang without accompaniment, her voice ringing out sweet and clear, piercing the rainy darkness like a golden light. The crowd stood silently as the first casket appeared, slowly carried down the church steps.

Suddenly a clenched fist went up in the air, then another. Then there were hundreds of raised fists, a salute of defiance to those in high places who acknowledged no limits to their power.

Clenched fists in front of Chilean flag

A shiver went down my spine. It was a defining moment in my young life. A feeling of power and destiny washed over me, as what seemed like a great truth revealed itself. I saw that those who rule could manipulate and intimidate, butcher and bomb, but as long as there were brave committed people like these to defy them, their command could never be absolute.

Standing there in that hushed crowd with a lump in my throat and the cold rain washing down my face, I knew with utter certainty that standing up and speaking the truth was always the right thing to do, because it strikes at the heart of power.

I knew that putting your life on the line, like Letelier did, unleashes forces against which no dictator can stand for long.


Amazingly (given the links to the CIA and other US government agencies), some of the people responsible for Letelier’s death were tried and convicted in the United States. Michael Townley, who was born in the United States but lived in Chile, was the DINA agent who coordinated the assassination. He was given a reduced sentence of ten years in return for testifying against his Cuban accomplices. Townley only served five years in prison before being released into the witness protection program. Two of the anti-Communist Cubans who helped with the bombing received life terms, and another received eight years.

Struggling Toward Democracy

During the seventeen years Pinochet ruled, he worked relentlessly to keep the opposition down.

To instill terror in the population, different tactics were tried at different times—long-term detentions in camps, random interrogations, death threats, torture, disappearances, selective assassinations. But the opposition would not go away.

In 1990 Pinochet ceded power to a democratically elected government. But he remained as commander in chief of the armed forces, a powerful position in a country where the military still had a major influence. Then in 1998 he gave up his post as head of the military to become a permanent senator for life, a position guaranteed by the constitution he drafted while president.

Chile Today

Today Chilean “democracy” operates under the watchful eye of the military. (Under Pinochet’s constitution, the military appoints one-fifth of Chile’s senators.)

Pinochet’s “pure capitalism” has given Chile one of Latin America’s most thriving economies, but wealth is restricted to a small group. One-third of the Chilean population lives in poverty.

In 1998 Senator Pinochet was arrested in Great Britain after British authorities received a request from Spain to have him extradited. Spain wanted to charge him with genocide, terrorism and murdering Spanish citizens in Chile. But after spending sixteen months under house arrest, Pinochet was released after being ruled mentally unfit to stand trial. Now, prosecutors in Chile are exploring loopholes in the ex-dictator’s immunity, and steps are being taken to have Pinochet tried for criminal acts committed during his long reign of terror.


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Text and graphics on this page by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Attribution: James L. VanHise –

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