An Exiled Son of Santiago
"Everywhere, begin the remembering."
(from a mural by Francisco Letelier, Venice, California)
At a backyard party in the counterculture community of Venice, California, a few years ago I met a young artist named Francisco Letelier. He had the long black hair of a warrior or musician, a classic Roman face and the muscular physique of a bodybuilder. His name, however, is what inevitably defines him, and what drew me to the event. Francisco--whose friends called him Pancho--is the son of Orlando Letelier, the Chilean diplomat murdered along with his colleague, Ronni Karpen, in Washington, DC, in 1976 by agents of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. The lives of then-11-year-old Francisco, his mother Isabel and his three teenage brothers were ruptured permanently when anti-Castro Cubans, dispatched by the Chilean secret police, detonated a bomb attached to Letelier's family car.
Though at the time I was immersed in California politics, the bombing jolted me viscerally, as it did thousands of opponents of Pinochet worldwide. The killings had taken place on Embassy Row, not a faraway Third World capital. Letelier, his colleague, and her husband, Michael Moffitt, who alone survived the blast, worked at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies, a respected center that served thousands of civil rights and peace activists. The terrorist killings by agents of DINA (the Chilean directorate of national intelligence) sent the message that no one in progressive movements was safe.
Now, years later, in Francisco's backyard, I wondered how he had coped. For any teenager, the father is God. When that God dies at the hands of sinister powers, how does one build an identity faithful to that fallen God yet also grow to independence on one's own terms?
In this country, the parallels are with the children of the assassinated Kennedy brothers and the descendants of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The transition is turbulent, never ending. Orlando Letelier himself was a complex person, a man called to politics whose soul was that of a poet and musician. Francisco Letelier, while called to politics by his father's death, has his father's cultural sensibility, choosing art and poetry to process the tragedy, from political murals to poetic works that universalize suffering, beauty and indigenous cultures. At the same time, he represents his father's name at rallies, in persuasive op-ed articles for the Los Angeles Times, by yearly vigils at the site of his father's murder and by human rights solidarity work. The nature of Francisco's art and politics arises from the exile condition as well as from what it means to be his father's son.
Like many multicultural Americans, Francisco's exile status is personally present on a daily basis while invisible to the mainstream Americans around him. He must learn to live in a country whose political culture forgets and forgives the crimes of a US-backed dictatorship that killed his father. As one of some 1 million Chileans who left their country during the Pinochet regime (one-tenth of the population at the time) he is a member of what some call "the harvest of empire" or "the fruits of war," an immigrant populace that is changing the complexion and future of America. It is a question whether such exiles--trapped between memory and amnesia, between psychic integration and a splitting of the self--will be assimilated into the superpower ethos that distances so many Americans from the world or whether they will become a binational force of conscience and human rights.
In pursuing these questions, I recently visited Francisco in Santiago when he was visiting his mother, Isabel Morel de Letelier, and his Congressman-brother, Juan Pablo Letelier. Together we met with human rights advocates and journalists who have been investigating the Pinochet case for three decades.
Chile itself has changed, at least on the surface, since the dictatorship was rejected by popular referendum in 1989. It is considered a modern country, which means much of its citizenry enjoys the perks of a consumer culture while the society itself downplays its bitter past. But most of the population has relatives who disappeared, were tortured and killed or managed to survive imprisonment. A majority strongly backs the civilian democratic process, but about one-third remains pro-Pinochet or in denial of the past. Strong pressures are exerted against punitive tribunals for fear of reopening divisions beneath the surface. A Socialist Party candidate, Michelle Bachelet, could be elected president this spring on a platform reflecting this surface reconciliation. Chileans know that her father was tortured and died in a Pinochet prison and that she herself was jailed, tortured and exiled, but Bachelet says little of her experience. She served as Chile's defense minister in 2002, becoming a symbol of stable reconciliation. Her presidency would be more moderate than those of her neighbors in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. But first she must win the endorsement of the center-left majority coalition, then defeat a right-wing, pro-Pinochet candidate in the general election.
Yet the trauma of the 1976 murders on Embassy Row is far from over for the political generation of the Leteliers, and the case itself continues to erupt in surprising ways. The week before I arrived, for example, the former head of Pinochet's secret police, Gen. Manuel Contreras, was imprisoned a second time for his role in political assassinations. Only a few years before, human rights lawyers in Europe and Chile miraculously pierced Pinochet's immunity as a former head of state, leaving him trapped in a permanent web of criminal investigations. What began as a utopian quest has established new precedents in global human rights jurisprudence, with the Letelier-Karpen murders as the touchstone.