Gabriel Boric, the dynamic 37-year-old president of Chile, was authentically moved, even surprised, by the scene that awaited him on a sodden Saturday morning in a traffic circle on Embassy Row in Washington. A hundred people sat under a white tent in the pouring rain, as many more crowded around the edges, clutching umbrellas being blown inside out by the wind. In the front were relatives of Orlando Letelier, an exiled Chilean diplomat, and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, an American human rights worker. On September 21, 1976, the two colleagues were assassinated by agents contracted by Chile’s secret police, who remotely detonated a bomb strapped beneath Letelier’s car. The CIA later determined the hit was likely ordered by Chile’s dictator and America’s close ally Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
The tent was pitched facing the spot on the circle where the car exploded. A small monument to the victims stands near the sidewalk, which Boric could see from his seat.
Boric, of course, knows the story of the murders of Letelier and Moffitt. An ardent admirer of the democratically elected socialist reformer Salvador Allende, whom Pinochet overthrew 50 years ago in the bloody coup of September 11, 1973, Boric has founded his political identity on reckoning with the crimes of the past in order to forge a more just future. He’s an astute combatant in the battle for historical memory currently raging in Chile, where a recent poll found that only 42 percent of Chileans think Pinochet’s coup destroyed democracy. In August, Boric launched the first national effort to find out what happened to more than 1,100 of the people who were disappeared during Pinochet’s regime but whose fates remain unknown. He had journeyed to Washington from New York, where in his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations earlier in the week, he declared—twice, for emphasis, in different parts of his speech—“Democracy is memory and future.”
What Boric may not have been expecting to encounter sheltered under the tent, though, was such a battle-tested community of believers in exactly that principle. The annual ceremony in Sheridan Circle to recall Letelier and Moffitt—and to celebrate later victories in the work they began—is always a hymn to memory and future.
Boric’s presence—shortly after the 50th anniversary of the coup and the 47th anniversary of the bombing, hailing from a generation born more than a decade after those events, yet still a spiritual descendant of Allende and Letelier, as well as a fellow foe of Pinochet’s legacy and today’s authoritarians—marked a convergence of struggles and signaled a movement’s coming full circle. It also culminated a week in Washington when, in loose parallel to the emotional and sometimes contested reflections on the coup anniversary in Chile, international human rights advocates—whose profession in many respects was born out of the terrors in Chile—nervously assessed the new threats to democracy in the United States, Chile, and many other countries.
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Sitting in the front row in a tan suit, looking more boyish than his years despite his black beard, Boric listened to the speakers. Representative Jamie Raskin read from a joint congressional resolution being introduced with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senators Bernie Sanders and Tim Kaine, and others. The resolution “expresses profound regret for the United States contribution to destabilizing Chile’s political institutions…and for United States assistance in the consolidation of the repressive military dictatorship of General Pinochet.” If the resolution passes, it would be the first time a branch of the US government has apologized for covertly undermining Allende and tacitly encouraging Pinochet’s takeover.
That American meddling included the CIA’s spending $8 million—about $55 million in today’s dollars—on covert activities, including spreading propaganda, gathering intelligence, and courting opposition groups during the three years of the Allende administration, according to a US Senate report in 1975. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Pinochet in a meeting in Santiago in June 1976, three months before Pinochet’s agents bombed Letelier and Moffitt, according to a transcript declassified in 2016: “We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” In that same meeting, Pinochet complained to Kissinger about Letelier’s outspoken criticisms of his regime. “We are worried about our image,” said the dictator.
Raskin’s father, Marcus Raskin, was a cofounder of the Institute for Policy Studies, the progressive think tank where Letelier, 44, was a fellow, and Moffitt, 25, was a development associate. Her husband, Michael Moffitt, survived the blast. Raskin quoted his father’s words in the aftermath of the bombing: “When everything looks hopeless, then you are the hope.”
Following Raskin, two of Letelier’s sons spoke, inviting Boric to take his own rightful place on this hallowed ground, which the brothers described as both metaphorical and real. “This is a site of cultural memory… that has been built during the last 47 years,” said Juan Pablo Letelier, a former member of the Chilean Senate. “The cultural memory site is an act of solidarity…a universal response to injustice, to abuse, to inequality.”
“Here at this circle, I’ve been part of a family for 47 years,” said Francisco Letelier, a California-based artist who was 17 when his father was killed. His monumental murals tell the stories of exiles and displaced peoples. “It’s a family that continues to grow in this place. This ground we stand on transcends location, nation, and time itself…. President Gabriel Boric has a place here…. We welcome him home to this authentic nation that is also Chile, that crosses borders, that resonates with those who came before us.”
When it was his turn to address the tent gathering, Boric’s eyes swept the crowd and for a moment he seemed to search for words. “I have been to a lot of acts of remembrance, and I must confess, I’m really shaken now,” he said. “After feeling this energy here… all of us here gathered happy and celebrating life, not death. That’s a… way to say that we won. That Orlando’s and Ronni’s ideals won…. It’s kind of difficult to talk after what we heard here.”
Switching to Spanish, he said wasn’t just being polite—he was genuinely moved. It was a learning experience, he said. “This isn’t one of those occasions where you wait for the speeches to end so you know when the event will be over. In spite of the rain, in spite of the cold, it’s really moving. And we are all going to leave with a piece of life that we didn’t have before.” He recalled that, in 2012, the Chilean Students Movement, in which he was prominent, had received the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute of Policy Studies. Now Camila Vallejo, one of the student activists who came to Washington to accept the award, is the spokesperson for his administration.
For the next 16 minutes, Boric spoke of threats to democracy in the past and present, and the responsibility to shine a light on them. “When there are those who dare ask the victims to silence their mourning, to turn the page, I humbly dare to say to them…that reconciliation is possible only with truth and with justice, not with forgetting.”
He thanked Raskin and the co-sponsors of the joint resolution—“It’s really significant to us”—and he alluded to the history of the US imposing itself on the affairs of Latin America: “We really expect that the US has a… deeper reflection on what they pushed in Chile, and not only in Chile, in other places in Latin America.” He added, “Today, 50 years after the breakdown of democracy in Chile, we pay homage to those who gave their lives in our country and outside it to restore the republic…. To them we owe in part that today we are a thriving democracy…where, despite our profound differences, we respect our adversaries and can talk and put Chile ahead of our divisions.”
The rain had softened to a feathery mist; Boric crossed the street to the monument, where a pile of red and white carnations was getting larger. He crouched and silently placed his hand on the sculpted faces of two victims of authoritarianism.
“Out of that catastrophe came something good.”
The words were former senator Tom Harkin’s during a program on Capitol Hill kicking off an informal week of remembrance, organized by the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, and other groups. But Harkin could have been speaking for many who value the international human rights movement. It scarcely existed before the events that unfolded in Chile starting in 1973 shocked the world. Televised images of jets rocketing the presidential palace. Allende’s dramatic last radio address before he took his own life. The hunting down of regime opponents. Under Pinochet’s 17-year reign, more than 3,000 were killed or disappeared and some 40,000 were tortured, according to official estimates. The idea that a democracy could disappear from one day to another…
Exiles flocked to Washington and other cities, and a massive Chile solidarity movement burst forth. Harkin, then recently elected to the House, helped enact legislation to ensure that human rights would be factored into decisions on providing foreign aid and military assistance. “A lot of new members of Congress were willing to put US foreign policy under a microscope in a way that it had never been put under a microscope,” said Joe Eldridge, a former Methodist missionary in Santiago who witnessed the coup and who cofounded WOLA in 1974.
By 1988, after years of outside pressure and courageous defiance within Chile, Pinochet lost a referendum on retaining power, and democracy returned in 1990. Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 in connection with crimes under his rule. On return to Chile, he was never tried because of ill health, and he died in 2006, but the piercing of a dictator’s impunity to international justice set an important precedent.
Such victories amount only to partial justice for the victims of the regime and their families. Stories of the dead and disappeared were told in Washington during the week, as they were in Chile around September 11. “We remember these events of the 1970s because without memory, there is no justice…and no possibility that we can live up to the promise of never again, nunca más,” said Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of WOLA.
In the end, seven people were prosecuted in the US in connection with the murders of Letelier and Moffitt, and two upper-level commanders were sent to jail in Chile. Michael Townley, the American-born agent who planted the bomb under Letelier’s car parked in the driveway of his home in Bethesda, was paroled after serving five years of a 10-year prison sentence. He was placed in the witness protection program after giving evidence against conspirators in this and other plots. He is in his early 80s today. In a measure of poetic justice, as part of a settlement in connection with another victimized family, Townley still sends money orders for $304 per month to the Institute for Policy Studies, which uses the money in part to support Francisco Letelier’s artwork “to educate new generations about the struggle for human rights in Chile and around the world,” says Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at IPS.
A stunning example of that work went on display this month in the main hall of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, where, on the eve of the ceremony at Sheridan Circle, more than 100 people gathered for a program on the role of art in historical memory. The mural is called Todas las Manos—“All the Hands”—five large panels with portraits of Letelier and Moffitt and imagery referencing other hemispheric struggles, story-telling, and classified documents.
“We’re imagining a world in which there is room for everybody, even people who we disagree with,” Francisco Letelier told the group. “We have to protect the idea that we are able to sit with people who do not look, who do not think or do not act like us. There is no future unless we do that…. I’m not so worried that these forces exist. I’m worried that we ourselves will not be able to rise to the occasion, to look at the examples that we have, like Martin Luther King and others like Salvador Allende, people who’ve given their lives for dialogue, for staying the course, for believing in our principles.”
During this season of anniversary and remembrance, Chile provides a double-edged example for Washington and the world—a meditation on the simultaneous resilience and fragility of democracy.
The nation where democracy disappeared one September day 50 years ago, then made a hardy comeback 17 years later, now wrestles with the meaning of those transitions of its past. Meanwhile, the nation that fancies itself a cradle of democracy, yet where liberty always has been unequally enjoyed, now struggles as some seem willing to discard basic democratic principles.
“In our frenzy to stamp out socialism, we betrayed our own values and supported authoritarian leaders like Pinochet, who were only too glad to leverage our paranoia to advance their own political power,” Representative Joaquin Castro said at the WOLA event. “At a time of democratic backsliding in the Western Hemisphere and around the world, including troubling trends…within our own country, Chile stands as an important example of how to rebuild a democratic and representative government without forgetting about the past.”
At various events over the course of the week, discussions on the plight of democracy ricocheted between Chile and the United States, between past and present. Some participants, including Raskin and Juan Pablo Letelier, drew direct parallels between supporters of the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the attitude of Chileans who once thought, and still think, that the coup had its upside of protecting order and wealth. Juan Gabriel Valdés, Chile’s ambassador to the US who once worked for Letelier at IPS, observed that ideologues on the left and the right should learn that “the most important lesson is that you cannot promote social transformations if you don’t have a majority. It’s as simple as that.” Steven Volk, a professor of history emeritus at Oberlin College and an expert on Chile and historical memory, warned Americans tempted to flirt with authoritarian expediencies that Chile shows that “once you give that process over to dictators, to authoritarians, to the military, you cannot control it. It is out of your hands.”
No one had an easy answer for how broad coalitions can be built across disagreements that border on the existential. Boric, though, in his remarks at the UN and at Sheridan Circle, insisted that it can and must be done. That will be his test as a leader. “The problems of democracy must be solved with more and never less democracy,” he told the General Assembly. At Sheridan Circle, he concluded: “A world like the one dreamed of by Allende, Orlando Letelier, and Ronni Moffitt continues to be possible. Democracy always.”