LEFT: Ronni Moffitt, who was a development associate at the Institute for Policy Studies at the time of her death in the 1976 car bombing. (Family photo) MIDDLE: Isabel Letelier, right, and Michael Moffitt embrace after placing roses at the site where Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were killed in 1976. (UPI) RIGHT: Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., is pictured in April 1975. (Associated Press/AS)
Washington Post: This Was Not an Accident. This Was a Bomb
On a muggy autumn morning four decades ago, a car exploded in Washington. It had motored along Massachusetts Avenue NW, rounding the bend at Sheridan Circle, when a remote-controlled bomb taped beneath the vehicle was triggered.
A driver in a car nearby would later describe the fiery impact of the blast: “I saw an automobile actually coming down out of the air.”
The smoldering wreck lurched to a halt in front of the Romanian Embassy, its windows blown open and entire floor panel gone. A police officer who arrived on the scene remembered welling up with nausea. There was blood and debris everywhere and a human foot in the roadway. A fatally wounded man lay on the pavement; his legs were missing from above the knees.
This was Orlando Letelier, a 44-year-old former Chilean diplomat who had been driving to work at a D.C. think tank along with his colleague, Ronni Moffitt, 25, and her husband, Michael.
Letelier died within minutes. Shrapnel had pierced Ronni Moffitt’s throat, and she drowned in her own blood a half-hour later. Michael, who had been sitting in the back seat, tumbled out largely unscathed. He was beside himself in grief and shock.
“Assassins, fascists!” he exclaimed amid the carnage.
They were victims of a brazen, perhaps unprecedented plot, the target of a foreign regime that had sent agents into the United States to kill Letelier. Here was a case of state-sponsored terrorism in the heart of the American capital. Only in this instance, the state was a close Washington ally in the Cold War.
Letelier was a prominent opponent of the military rule of Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who rose to power in a 1973 army coup that ousted and led to the death of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Letelier had served as Chile’s ambassador to the United States in Allende’s socialist government, which the CIA spent millions of dollars undermining through covert operations. On the day of the coup, Letelier was arrested and sent, with other ministers of Allende’s government, to a string of concentration camps. For months, he was kept at Dawson Island in the extreme south of Chile near the South Pole. He was released only after concerted international diplomatic pressure.
A trained economist, Letelier eventually won residency in Washington and a post at the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies. He became the most prominent Chilean exile living in the United States — and a magnet for dissent and criticism of both Pinochet’s abuses and the missteps of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.
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Editor’s Note: The Letelier Assassination
Following Pinochet’s coup, the military government imprisoned former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier. Later released, he went into exile in the US where the former Ambassador to the US landed a job as head of the Transnational Institute within the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a left-of-center think tank. (Anderson & Whitten, Washington Post, 12-20-76, p. C7; Irvine, AIM Report, Oct 80, p. 1) An FBI wiretap of December 4, 1975 revealed Letelier had contacted DGI officer Torres Rizo on a recent conference in Mexico. Letelier advised his handler the conference had been productive and the Cubans in attendance had made excellent contributions. Torres Rizo told Letelier he would be in Washington DC in mid-December and he wanted to meet with him and his IPS colleagues. (Irvine, AIM Report, Oct 80, p. 4) In 1977, columnist Jack Anderson identified Cuban Mission to the United Nations (CMUN) officer Julian Torres Rizo as the chief of Havana’s US-based intelligence operations. (Anderson & Whitten, Washington Post, 6-9-77, p. VA 25).
On December 17, Letelier arranged to meet Torres Rizo in New York City two days later to receive some packages. FBI wiretaps and Letelier’s own diary showed five contacts between Letelier and Torres Rizo that month. In contrast, Letelier’s diary revealed only one contact with senior intelligence officer Teofilo Acosta Rodriguez during 1975. (Irvine, AIM Report, Oct 80, p. 4). The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) later identified Teofilo Acosta as a senior Cuban intelligence officer. (Valeriani, NBC, 9-1-77). In 1982, DGI defector Gerardo Peraza re-affirmed Acosta’s DGI affiliation (US Senate, 2-26-82)
On September 21, 1976, Letelier died when a bomb placed in his car detonated as he entered Washington D.C.’s Sheridan Circle. Investigators subsequently salvaged Letelier’s attaché case from the debris. (Anderson & Whitten, Washington Post, 12-20-76, p. C7; Irvine, AIM Report, Oct 80, p. 1) Secret documents found in the case provided additional details of Letelier’s direct contact with CMUN 1st Secretaries Torres Rizo and Acosta. In this correspondence, Letelier warned his Cuban connections to keep their relations secret, lest it undermine his influence in the US. (Irvine, New York Times, 10-11-80, p. 22; Library of Congress’ 1971 Cuban Dip list, p. 61). In a letter from Beatrice Allende dated May 8, 1975, she told Letelier he would receive a onetime payment of $5000, followed by monthly payments of $1000. She told him the money came from the Chilean Socialist Party in exile. At the time, the exiled party maintained offices in Rome, East Berlin and Havana. US Intelligence sources told investigators Letelier could not have been provided the money without Havana’s approval. After her letter was made public, Beatrice Allende refused to comment to US media inquiries. (Anderson & Whitten, Washington Post, 12-20-76, p. C7) After her father’s death, Beatriz Allende had fled Chile and moved to Cuba with her husband. Four years later, apparently suffering from severe depression, she committed suicide. (Andrew, Our Way, p. 516)
On the day of his death, Letelier also carried correspondence from Cuban agent [now Chilean Ambassador to the US] Juan Gabriel Valdes. The September 1976 letter from Valdes to America Department (DA) Officer Emilio Brito thanked him for documents he (Valdes) received from Torres Rizo. Valdes said the documents had been exceptionally useful and he hoped to send Brito some items he had collected. Valdes also told Brito he hoped to travel to Cuba in early 1977. Brito’s assignment at the time was DA subversive operations in the US, including Puerto Rico. (Anderson & Whitten, Washington Post, 12-20-76, p. C7; Irvine, AIM Report, Oct 80, p. 1)
Letelier probably carried these documents to prevent the CIA from stealing them. (Anderson & Whitten, Washington Post, 12-20-76, p. C7) His concern was well founded. From 1971-early 1972, six separate burglaries occurred at Chile’s lesser diplomatic facilities in the US. Then, in mid-May 1972, the Chilean Embassy itself was burglarized. The intruders made no effort to conceal their misdeed: Letelier’s office was extensively ransacked, as were those of other senior officials. A subsequent Senate investigation confirmed the US government’s role and revealed the FBI had placed wiretaps on the Chilean Embassy from 1971-1973 at the CIA’s request. (Davis, pp. 93-95) It is unclear who ordered the 1975 wiretaps.
Anderson, Jack & Les Whitten. “The Unseen Side of Fidel Castro,” Washington Post, June 9, 1977, p. VA 25.
_________. “Letelier’s “Havana Connection,” Washington Post, December 20, 1976, p. C7.
Andrew, Christopher M. & Vasili Mitrokhin. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005
Davis, Nathaniel. The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Irvine, Reed (Editor). “The Cuban Connection of Orlando Letelier,” New York Times, October 11, 1980, p. 22.
_________. “AIM Report: F.B.I. Files Expose Letelier,” Accuracy in Media (AIM) Report, October 1980, p. 1.
United States Senate – Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism — Committee on the Judiciary, “The Role of Cuba in International Terrorism and Subversion: Intelligence Activities of the DGI,” February 26, 1982.
Valeriani, Richard. “U.S./Cuban Relations: Embassies Reopen,” National Broadcasting Company (NBC) Evening News. September 1, 1977, Vanderbilt University television News Archive, http://openweb.tvnews. vanderbilt.edu/1977-9/1977-09-01-CBS-5.html
America Department (DA): The name used by the intelligence wing of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party from 1974 to the late 1980s or early 1990s. The DA was heavily involved in supporting revolutionaries and terrorists, but has since become more focused on political intelligence operations. This service is now called the America Area of the International Department of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC/ID/AA).
Directorate of Intelligence (DI): The foreign intelligence wing of the Ministry of the Interior. Prior to 1989, this service was known as the Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI).