An Exiled Son of Santiago

An Exiled Son of Santiago

Two generations of Leteliers.


“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.

The US government is silent these days about the terrorist acts committed not far from the White House in 1976. With pressure from the families and public opinion, the Justice Department successfully pursued the case against five anti-Castro agents in 1978 but three Chilean DINA agents who were indicted were never extradited to face trail. The Clinton Administration later disclosed previously classified official documents that shed new light on American collaboration with Pinochet and Operation Condor, a Pinochet-inspired collaboration of secret police units from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay. Today the Letelier-Karpen case is technically “open” at the Justice Department, but not actively pursued,

Perhaps the fact that George H.W. Bush happened to be CIA director during the period of the Letelier-Moffitt murders and the Condor conspiracy, and Donald Rumsfeld Secretary of Defense has something to do with the present Administration’s inactivity. Immediately after the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations, Bush (senior) authorized a CIA disinformation campaign planting stories that blamed the killings on left-wing radicals seeking to make a martyr of Letelier. In addition, the US government has attempted to both deny and distance itself from the Condor project, but memos classified for twenty-five years suggest a greater CIA involvement than previously acknowledged. For example, as early as 1974 the CIA knew that Condor assassins were killing nonviolent political opponents. More documents remain under wraps at the Justice Department, on the pretext that they would have value to the prosecution in any future case against Pinochet.

Also having reason to worry might be America’s new spy chief, John Negroponte, who served in the State Department in Vietnam during Operation Phoenix, the assassination program targeting Vietcong and Vietcong sympathizers, and as ambassador to Honduras during the notorious death-squad period of the 1980s. In other words, the Pinochet papers, when and if fully disclosed, may illuminate links in a thirty-year policy of tolerating, even promoting, torture and “renditions” as a matter of US policy, not the excessive behavior of a few “bad apples.”

While their feelings are bittersweet, the Letelier family can claim some satisfaction as the case continues to unfold. At dinner in Santiago with Francisco, his brother Juan Pablo and his mother, Isabel, the family was firm in its desire that Pinochet “play the piano,” as Juan Pablo put it, using an expression for fingerprinting. For the historical record, Juan Pablo said, it is crucial that Pinochet be convicted as both a “dictator and a thief.” Ironically, Juan Pablo, an official in his father’s Socialist Party and a four-term congressman, plays an overseeing role in a new investigation of Pinochet’s secret deposits of million of dollars in the Washington, DC-based Riggs bank.

The Riggs scandal was uncovered by US Senate investigators using the money-laundering provision of the Patriot Act, added by Democratic Senators Paul Sarbane and Carl Levin, which requires enhanced due diligence and criminalizes the hiding of stolen money in American bank accounts. The Pinochet investigation thus may become a case study of hidden linkages in US policy between militarism and economic privatization. It was not dictatorial megalomania alone that drove Pinochet, but violent opposition to the socialist policies of the elected government of Salvador Allende, which he overthrew in 1973 with enthusiastic American support.

If Francisco manifests the artistic side of his father’s personality, Juan Pablo has managed to follow in Orlando’s political footsteps, becoming a key leader and strategist in his father’s party. It has been a painful journey for Juan Pablo, who, like Francisco, wears his hair at shoulder length. The brothers are very close and, in fact, Francisco was in Chile partly to join Juan Pablo in a wilderness expedition in Chile’s south. I learned more about Juan Pablo in an interview with the journalist Monica Gonzales, who consented to see me at the suggestion of Francisco. Gonzales is a torture victim and one of the few journalists to pursue the Pinochet investigation since the coup on Chile’s September 11, in 1973.

Gonzales’s emotions and tears cascaded freely across her face as she discussed the experience of evil in her small, crowded office at the weekly journal Siete + 7. I noticed during our discussion that Francisco was quiet. This was the first occasion they had met, and it appeared that Monica and he shared a bond across time and space, perhaps a familiarity grown from common grief. Monica said “it’s finally time to talk about the people who are still alive, the living dead who never recover from torture but walk the streets, and the numbed children who never speak.” She had contacted Juan Pablo when he returned to Chile in 1982 after graduate training in East Berlin and Mexico. Francisco would return one year later. The dictatorship was in power, but faltering. “I contacted Juan Pablo,” Monica said, “because I wanted to find out what had happened to the sons of all those murdered fathers.” They unexpectedly talked for six hours. Juan Pablo told her of sitting on a bench in Europe at Christmastime, shortly after his father’s death. He was watching families celebrate the season inside their happy homes. He had hit bottom, could not speak. When he told Monica of this experience, she said, he cried, “enough for all his brothers. We both cried about the silenced crying of those years.”

Francisco and his brothers were exiled three days after his birth in 1959. Orlando was fired from a research position in the copper industry for supporting Salvador Allende’s unsuccessful campaign for the presidency. The Letelier family retreated to friendly Venezuela, and from there, Orlando made his way to the Inter-American Development Bank and American University in Washington, DC. Letelier was an intellectual, a singer, an artist and, only reluctantly, a politician and diplomat. The revolutionary times dictated his destiny. Maurice Zeitlin, now a UCLA sociology professor who in 1965 was a Ford Foundation researcher in Chile, recalls the fervor as Chileans excitedly experienced the rise of “a genuine, mass-based revolutionary left.” Zeitlin recalls that “Allende was always the unifier, and he never wavered from the idea of a peaceful transition to socialism.” The streets seemed perpetually filled with militant hope.

Like Luiz In&acute:cio Lula da Silva in Brazil a generation later, Allende ran four times before being elected in 1970 with a 36.2 percent plurality, including 75 percent of the working-class vote, and was confirmed as president by the Chilean Parliament. Zeitlin, whose daughter happened to date Francisco in his exile years, remembers passionate arguments in the 1960s over Chilean coffee in Santiago about the prospects of the “peaceful road.” The Chileans he knew, many of whom became national leaders later, insisted that their country was “the England of Latin America,” peaceful and constitutional. “They thought they were special,” he recalls, even though there was the chilling example of the 1967 CIA-supported military coup in Greece, another nation claiming a democratic heritage. The deposed Greek leader Andreas Papandreou, Allende’s counterpart, “wrote in his memoir that he had understood the possibility of a coup in his own country intellectually, but not emotionally,” says Zeitlin. “In Greece, there were no safe houses, no contingencies to protect the leaders, and it was the same in Chile.”

Orlando Letelier, a committed member of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, flew from Washington to Santiago after Allende’s 1970 election, and offered his services. Orlando had unique leadership qualities, among them a sophisticated grasp of the complexities of American politics that was rare among Latin American revolutionaries. President Allende therefore sent Letelier back to Washington as Chile’s new ambassador, where Isabel and the boys (Christian, 18, Jose, 17, Francisco, 17, and Juan Pablo, 16) adjusted to embassy life. Sheridan Circle, where Orlando soon would be killed, was their backyard. Francisco and Juan Pablo opened their first savings accounts at the Riggs bank. Their schoolmates included Donald Rumsfeld’s daughter, Marcy, and James Baker’s daughter Patricia. Even today, Francisco has a memento of an Easter egg hunt at the White House, signed “with warmest regards, Pat Nixon.” The daughter of another Chilean official, Pascal Bonnefoy, who attended parties with Francisco, remembers the time as one when she lost the Spanish language “and almost was a gringa.” Instead, Pascal would return eventually to Chile to become one of its most respected human rights investigators.

But beneath the diplomatic veneer, the wheels of destruction were turning. Declassified White House documents expose President Nixon ranting that he wanted to “smash that son of a bitch Allende” by a military coup or by “making the economy scream” or both. The International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) company was scheming with the CIA and White House to overthrow Allende. The Nixon government poured millions into El Mercurio, a savagely anti-Allende newspaper. Weapons and funds were passed by the CIA to plotters who eventually killed Defense Minister Gen. Rene Schneider, who was pledged to protect the legally elected Allende government.

As the crisis intensified, in 1972 Orlando Letelier was called back by the beleaguered Allende to serve, it turned out briefly, as minister of foreign relations, then defense. In the latter role, he supervised Augusto Pinochet, then head of the army. The young Francisco, back again in Santiago, was just finishing eighth grade. He vividly recalls Pinochet standing “in my father’s study, the Andes visible in the windows behind him. I remember that he looked strangely disconcerted.”

When the tanks, troops and bombs were finally unleashed against Allende’s offices on September 11, 1973 (a day that one US military adviser called “our D-Day” and Chile’s “day of destiny”), Orlando Letelier was arrested at his own defense ministry. With others, he was immediately dispatched to Dawson Island, a frozen enclave hundreds of miles off the southern Chilean coast. A light poncho was his protection from the cold. While Francisco and his brother had “adolescent nightmares” about their father who never came home, Isabel made daily rounds to ministries to advocate for her husband’s release. She even met Pinochet, and remembers him suddenly exploding in rage during her brief appeal for Orlando’s return.

At the time of his father’s deportation, Francisco was living in the shadow of Huelen Hill, the spot where the city of Santiago was founded. Eight times the Mapuche Indians destroyed the Spanish foothold at the site, and though never conquered, they were driven back across the Bio-Bio river. As a boy Francisco would climb the hill and imagine the Mapuche warriors and the mixed-blood Chileans who came after them. Orlando and Isabel once sat near that hill and imagined having their children. After the coup Francisco continued to wander the old fortifications and try to “imagine my nation.” Years later he wrote a poetic vision of a new gathering on Huelen Hill, a reverse colonization in which all the far-flung exiles of the Americas would come home to

Take the streets
Help the lost children
Hidden on corners
Hold the children
Make the world
Everywhere begin the remembering
Of places we will make our monuments.

While his father was missing, Francisco remembers watching Chilean bodies floating in Santiago’s central river and experiencing the impact of the military takeover in his school. Eventually, without telling his mother, he stopped attending classes. “For her, it was ‘well, at least the kids are still going to school.’ That thought still gave her some peace of mind. So I would stay home when she was out or just go over to my grandmother’s. It was a little easier for us than it was for our mother because we were still discovering the world for ourselves at this point. Our mother’s world, though, had been completely destroyed.” After one year of this surreal existence, vigorous Venezuelan diplomacy resulted in the sudden release of Letelier from Dawson Island on the condition that he immediately leave Chile. The family once again began resettling in Caracas, but then Orlando Letelier decided to head for Washington, at the proposal of an American writer, Saul Landau. In 1975 Letelier took a position with the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), where Landau worked at the time, and plunged into writing, speaking and lobbying the US Congress and European governments against the Pinochet regime. He soon became the leading voice of the Chilean resistance. According to John Dinges, who has been following the case for thirty years, Orlando “was on the short list of possible presidents in a post-dictatorial Chile.”

On June 8, 1976, Henry Kissinger met with Pinochet in Santiago and, according to a declassified document, told the Chilean dictator that “we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here. I think that the previous government was headed toward communism. We wish your government well.” While Kissinger gingerly expressed hope that Pinochet would take cosmetic steps to deflect Congressional pressures over human rights violations, he reinforced Pinochet’s paranoia, telling him that “my evaluation is that you are victim of all left-wing groups around the world.” Pinochet’s director of secret police, General Contreras, would give formal orders that very month to prepare Orlando Letelier’s assassination. Now, over tea with Kissinger, the dictator probed twice about Letelier, complaining that Letelier was providing “false information” all over Washington. Kissinger said nothing in defense of Letelier, and offered general support for the dictator’s government. “In my opinion, Kissinger at least unwittingly gave Pinochet the green light to kill Orlando Letelier,” says Landau, now a professor in Southern California.

Three months later, on September 18, Michael Townley planted a plastic explosive on the underside of the car in the Letelier driveway in Bethesda, Maryland. Francisco was asleep just a few feet away. “Everyone in my family used the car. I had driven it to my school prom…. Any one of us could have turned the key.”

On that morning, Landau’s wife, Rebecca, who worked for several congressmen on human rights issues, was among the first to witness the wreckage as she drove to work along Embassy Row. As Landau remembers, “She called me and said she’d just witnessed the most horrible accident in her life, pieces of clothes, blood, car parts everywhere in the street. A minute later we learned it was Orlando. There was hysteria at the IPS.” Landau, then 40 years old, was left in charge while IPS founders Marcus Raskin and the late Richard Barnet went to the hospital with Isabel. There they learned that Ronni Karpen was injured as well, bleeding from a severed carotid artery. Landau says he “had no idea what to do, so I said, ‘Lock the doors'” to the IPS building. The FBI, which at the time was being sued for harassment and surveillance of the IPS, soon arrived, accompanied by dogs. When the agents asked who was responsible and were told “DINA,” they resp onded, “Could you spell that name?” Landau remembers seeing Francisco and one of his brothers that day, “glazed teenagers, no idea what had happened, so incredibly traumatized, between grief and incomprehension.”

Landau suggested Raskin and Barnet call a news conference to announce that Isabel would take Orlando’s place. They agreed. She would remain at IPS working on the Letelier-Moffitt case and human rights issues until the early 1990s, when she finally returned to Santiago.

How does a mother of four sons heal her family after such a catastrophe? Isabel told me at her home in Santiago that her philosophy of parenting was threefold: first, to have “cool hands” to relieve fevers and make nightmares go away; second, a “burning heart” to love one’s children “no matter what because they are immigrants who come to your heart”; and third, “open arms to release them.” She soldiered on, pursuing Pinochet and Condor, raising her sons admirably by all accounts. When one of the DINA conspirators in her husband’s assassination pleaded guilty in a Washington proceeding, he asked Isabel if he might be forgiven. She did so spontaneously, she said, since he had acknowledged his role and was accepting punishment. It was a revealing Catholic act on her part, leading a surprised Marcus Raskin to comment that he “always knew you were a Buddhist.” When I asked the Leteliers at dinner about their approach to forgiveness, Francisco offered only that “thirty years of action has made forgiveness more possible.”

Shortly after his father’s murder. Francisco began painting murals with the Orlando Letelier Muralist Brigade, formed with solidarity committees around the United States. He enrolled at the California College of Arts and Crafts, then at the University of California, Berkeley, and concentrated in ethnic studies. He traveled as a muralist to Nicaragua in 1980.

Then he returned to Chile in 1983, living with his brother Juan Pablo. They participated in clandestine demonstrations that were repressed by the police. An exhibit of Francisco’s artistic work on the disappeared, sponsored by the French Institute, was shut down. Then he became very sick with hepatitis and decided to return to the US for health reasons and graduate school.

The years 1985 to 1988 found him in the fine arts program at UCLA, traveling to Nicaragua with muralists, doing the art for Jackson Browne’s World in Motion. album and working on murals with incarcerated youth in LA County. Then his exile’s inner life took a strange turn. He married and had a son with a woman whose background shadowed his own. Monica Mercedes Pérez Jiménez was the beautiful daughter of Marita Lorenz, a former lover of Fidel Castro at the beginning of the Cuban revolution, who later turned into a CIA agent. Several years after the affair with Fidel ended, the agency sent Marita back to Havana to seduce the Cuban leader and murder him. As the story is passed down, Fidel willingly met his old flame, looked directly at her and said, “So they’ve sent you here to kill me.” Whether the line reawakened Marita’s passion is unclear, but it terminated the assassination plot. That was only the mother’s side of Monica’s world. Her farther was the dictator of Venezuela, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Whatever was pulling Francisco, whose father was killed by anti-Castro Cubans under Chilean direction, toward this daughter of a dictator’s CIA wife with a love/hate relationship with Fidel Castro, it finally waned. But not before the couple birthed a child, Matias Orlando, in 1991, on the very same day that Francisco was inaugurating a mural, coincidentally called Inheritance, with incarcerated gang members in LA County.

In the following decade Francisco continued with murals, ranging from a 1997 showing in Santiago’s contemporary art museum to a giant “ring of peace” done with artists from Belfast’s divided East and West neighborhoods. Two attempts to move back to Chile were bogged down by unresolved custody issues over Matias. In 1997 Francisco became a permanent resident of Venice, working on murals and beginning to write articles for the Los Angeles Times. and elsewhere after Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998. His American roots were deepened by the birth of a second son, Salvador Nahuel, with Kayren Pace in Santa Monica. By my personal observation, both the sons are lively, handsome inheritors of the Letelier heritage.

Francisco lives today on the same property as his brother Christian, “the most First World of my sons,” says Isabel. Christian is a marine biologist with an intenational law degree, a handsome Hollywood extra and a volunteer with Heal the Bay. Another brother, Jose–“a good student, very political,” says Isabel–lives on remote Easter Island engaged in eco-tourism. Juan Pablo, with a wife and three children, remains in Chile.

Judy Baca, the famed Chicano artist and director of an art center in Venice, has observed the arc of Francisco’s work since the 1980s. In her first memory, he was very politicized, but she adds, “Candidly, I thought Francisco was kind of torn” about the artistic direction he wanted to take, perhaps fatigued by the permanent need to be Orlando’s son. He became “all buffed out, turning everybody’s head,” but also more deeply spiritual and indigenous. Her agency sponsored Francisco’s mural on the bakery wall in Venice. Last year, Baca noticed, Francisco was producing, in her estimation, his “most impressive, remarkable” pieces, including an exhibit featuring the poncho his father wore on Dawson Island combined with declassified documents damning George H.W. Bush as CIA director.

Faviola Letelier, Orlando’s sister, is lovingly seen by her nephews as the most militant member of the family. Now in her early 70s, for decades she has been a dogged human rights lawyer on behalf of her brother and other victims of Pinochet. Her erect carriage, piercing eyes and long, narrow face carry suggestions of nobility, and of what Orlando might have looked like as a grandfather. After a two-hour bus ride to the coast, I found her in a small getaway cottage near a beach that resembled Venice, California, circa the 1930s. As we strolled along the shore, her keen mind downloaded endless findings in her thirty-year campaign against Pinochet. She has been sorting the evidence, for example, that “their first idea was to kill Orlando and others with sarin gas,” a chemical project pursued by Chile’s army in the 1970s. I have come, however, to ask her about exiles, her broadest passion. Affidavit by affidavit, she has been filing class-action suits demanding that the Chilean Goverment offer reparations for the “loss of identity” and “psychological rupture” inflicted by forced emigration. She hopes that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will soon recognize exile as a human rights violation deserving compensation.

As we looked across the ocean at our feet, she said mournfully that “exile violates the project of life. The Greeks and Romans said it was worse than death.”

Two days later, suddenly back on Venice Beach, alongside the same Pacific currents, I stopped for a closer look at Francisco’s nearby mural. It features a tall, beautiful sea goddess whose umbilical cord circles the earth. The mural is beginning to decay, however, because the building is slated for removal as part of Venice’s ongoing gentrification. The city may not preserve the mural for another reason, since Francisco’s work is associated with the local neighborhood council, which, according to an internal City Hall memo, has “gone rouge.” I have to recover the faded verses from Francisco, who e-mails them from Santiago where he has finished climbing a mountain peak in the wilds of Punto Arenas with Juan Pablo. The poem is called “Santiago Son, Becoming the Circle.”

Look at us
So fine and wild.
Rare and undiscovered tribe,
Later on they’ll talk about the way we moved,
They will.
And we will be examples of a way
So others may create a safe place within the heart
We leave behind.
Let us make a place
Where children become the mystic travelers.

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