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A car bomb killed Orlando Letelier 40 years ago; a mural by his son marks the tragedy and the progress it inspired

WASHINGTON – Francisco Letelier gazes up at the bigger-than-life portrait he has just painted of his late father, Orlando, who, in turn, is depicted also gazing up, searchingly, toward something unseen. What is the man in the mural yearning for? The defeat of the dictator? Justice for the torturers? Mercy for the disappeared?

Three days after a then-17-year-old Francisco took the original Polaroid snapshot upon which this new portrait is based, Orlando was dead – assassinated, blown up by a remote-control bomb planted in his Chevrolet. It exploded on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 1976, in Sheridan Circle, on Washington’s Embassy Row, as the exiled former Chilean ambassador was driving to work at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. He was giving a lift to his American colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who also was killed. Moffitt’s husband, Michael Moffitt, survived the blast.

It was a shocking case of foreign state-sponsored terrorism on U.S. soil. In the two decades that followed, members of the Chilean secret police and military and their hired hit men were prosecuted in the United States and Chile. More recently, declassified documents suggested that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet personally ordered the murder of Letelier. Pinochet, who died in 2006, was never prosecuted for the killings.

The portrait of Orlando Letelier is part of a five-panel mural, 10 feet by 40 feet, that was recently unveiled in the sculpture garden of the American University Museum. Now, as the artist contemplates his work, it’s clear that his ambition is broader than simply invoking the memory of two martyrs frozen forever in the prime of life. The mural, titled “Todas las Manos” – “All the Hands” – is Francisco Letelier’s way of seeking to redeem the tragedy by telling the story of the idealism it has inspired in the decades since.

“We’re commemorating not just the tragic events that happened on the 21st of September 1976,” he says. “This project celebrates the way that tragedy was turned into a legacy of activism, of landmark cases in global justice, of continuing to build a world in which justice and international cooperation are real and felt. … Many campaigns toward a better world … spring from difficult moments, and it’s up to us to overcome those moments and to make them have meaning.”

The creation of the mural is one of a series of activities marking the 40th anniversary of the deaths of Letelier and Moffitt. Later this month, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is scheduled to attend a memorial service at the monument to the two in Sheridan Circle Park.

Francisco Letelier, a professional artist based in Los Angeles, designed the mural and executed it with the help of students from the Latin American Youth Center in Washington. It will be on display through Oct. 23 before traveling to other locations.

“I only painted him once before in my life, and that was probably 30 years ago,” says the artist, who, at 57, is 13 years older than his father lived to be.

That long-ago day when he got out his Polaroid camera and asked his father to pose, the Letelier family – Orlando and Isabel and their four sons – was throwing a party on Chilean Independence Day – Sept. 18, 1976 – in the back yard of their home in Bethesda, Maryland. Francisco had all but forgotten about the photo until he came across it recently as he was looking for inspiration and material for the mural project. It was just a head shot of his father gazing into the distance. As a model for the rest of his father’s body in the mural, Francisco used a photograph of himself.

“It’s emotional, but you know, I’m an emotional painter,” Francisco says. “This is a project I’ve done with great passion, tenacity and planning.”

The mural includes a portrait of Moffitt holding an American Beauty rose and looking serenely at the viewer. At the time of her death, she was 25 and recently married. In addition to her work at the think tank, she ran a “music carryout” to provide instruments to people who had none.

The mural project brings Francisco Letelier full circle. He was in the 11th grade at Walt Whitman High School when his father was killed. On the first anniversary of the bombing, he joined other artists in creating a mural in Rock Creek Park. He also co-founded the Orlando Letelier Brigade with José Letelier, an older brother, and René Castro, an exiled Chilean artist. The brigade created murals across the United States and in other countries. Francisco Letelier went on to a career as a muralist and creator of public art projects. Castro’s son, Carmelo, 21, is a student at George Washington University, and when he heard about the project he came out to help.

Francisco Letelier says he believes in the phrase attributed to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda that “murals are the people’s blackboard.” “This is still one of the most powerful forms of expression there is,” he says.

The portraits of Letelier and Moffitt occupy scarcely a third of the mural as the artist uses the rest of the space to locate their lives and deaths within a hemispheric struggle for human rights that began before they were born and continues today.

Boldly painted images from nature – mountains, a dandelion, hummingbirds, fireflies, doves and flowers – allude to the diaspora of peoples and to a particular Chilean fable of reconciliation and forgiveness. Against that backdrop, copies of declassified documents, nespaper clippings and ephemera from advocacy campaigns form collages that speak urgently of the efforts of lawyers and activists to penetrate layers of official secrets in Santiago and Washington.

Here is a memo that Secretary of State George P. Shultz wrote to President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Shultz reports being “particularly struck by a recent report prepared by the CIA analyzing the events surrounding the assassination by car-bombing in Washington in 1976 of Orlando Letelier … and Ronni Moffitt. … The CIA concludes that its review provides ‘what we regard as convincing evidence that President Pinochet personally ordered his intelligence chief to carry out the murders.'”

That memo wasn’t released to the public until last year.

Some of the documents pasted onto the mural contain words and phrases that were blacked out before the papers were released. The remaining uncensored words communicate in a kind of spooky haiku – which inspired Francisco Letelier to doctor one redacted cable into an original poem:

“Orlando Letelier

“Ronni Karpen Moffitt

“Sing tell thunder and strut

“Let them know that we support them now and later

“Use all available assets to create a major reaction

“Cannot be stopped

“Continue”

Among the found documents that find their way into the mural are a copy of the Maryland driver’s license that was in Orlando Letelier’s pocket; a picture of Orlando and Isabel Letelier dancing on that same night of the Independence Day party; an image of Joan Baez performing for mourners; and a program from the memorial service.

The mural also recalls Latin American memory walls on which families post photos of disappeared loved ones. Francisco Letelier universalizes the form by including not just images of disappeared people from the Pinochet era, but also more recent victims, such as Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who was shot dead this year, along with other categories of heroes and martyrs, such as Simón Bolívar, Harriet Tubman and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

After Pinochet toppled Salvador Allende in a 1973 coup, Washington became a magnet for Chilean exiles, activists and artists. Pinochet’s violent post-coup campaign against Allende’s supporters, including Letelier, also galvanized a generation of American-born activists in Washington interested in international human rights. Many of those activists and investigators were on hand at the museum for the opening of the mural, including Joseph Eldridge, chaplain at American University and co-founder of the Washington Office on Latin America; Peter Kornbluh, director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive; filmmaker Aviva Kempner; John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies; and Lori Kaplan, president and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center. Each year, the policy studies think tank gives human rights awards named for Letelier and Moffitt.

The mural also tells the story of those in Washington becoming involved. The third-largest portrait, after Orlando Letelier’s and Moffitt’s, shows Rodrigo Rojas de Negri. Rojas was a young Chilean exile whose mother had been tortured by Pinochet’s forces. He studied at Wilson High School and was involved with the Latin American Youth Center. At 19, in 1986, he traveled to Chile to reconnect with his country and to take pictures of demonstrations against Pinochet. Soldiers detained him, doused him with gasoline and burned him to death.

In the mural, Rojas’ image is depicted as if it were posted on a memory wall, and the artist has painted the figure of a boy on a ladder reaching up as if to touch him – the next generation visualized.

“People who were motivated by the events in Chile moved on to have a huge impact in Washington, D.C.,” Francisco Letelier says. “One of the legacies is that through the investigation into Orlando, uncovering all of the other things Pinochet did … we’ve made great inroads into global justice.”

Efforts continue. This year, legal proceedings in the United States and Chile continued against members of Pinochet’s regime who were implicated in atrocities. The Obama administration is preparing to present Bachelet with more secret documents regarding the Letelier case.

“The idea of justice is a wily and slippery thing,” Francisco Letelier says. “Remember, if Augusto Pinochet had stood trial after he was arrested in London (in 1998), we would have put an 83-year-old man inside a cell. And if anyone thinks that that creates justice and closure, they should revisit the situation and think about it. Prisons are the awkward and clumsy vehicle that we have. What’s more important for me is to dismantle the myth of Pinochet and to clarify the history. … It has been a long, long arc towards justice over many years.”

For the opening of the mural in the sculpture garden, the artist hung an unofficial sixth panel next to the painted five panels. It was a large flag of Chile that happened to be about the same size as the mural panels. Orlando Letelier could not be buried in his country while Pinochet remained in power. But in 1992, his remains were brought home. This was the flag that draped the coffin upon the exile’s return.

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