Human rights lessons: The Letelier-Moffitt Monument and an international terrorist attack

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On September 21, 1976, former and now deceased Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet brought international terrorism to the U.S. capital. As part of a plot to eliminate opponents of the military regime which took power in a bloody U.S.-backed coup on September 11, 1973, Pinochet’s crosshairs targeted Orlando Letelier, Chile’s one-time ambassador to the US under President Salvador Allende from 1970-1973. Working in exile after the coup at the Institute for Policy Studies, Letelier, with recently married colleagues Ronni and Michael Moffitt, shared a car ride to work that fateful September day in DC. When the automobile made its routine route to Sheridan Circle via Massachusetts Ave., it exploded. Mr. Moffitt was thrown from the car, but Letelier and Mrs. Moffitt were less fortunate, and were pronounced dead within an hour of the attack.

More than 30 years later, I sat on the sidewalk next to the explosion site to sketch the modest monument memorializing the tragic event. A few people passed me, staring, perhaps wondering (or perhaps knowing) what the monument marked. I, meanwhile, wondered how it came to be–who was responsible for memorializing, in 1981, this place of tragedy and terror. I later learned that the creation of the memorial was connected to the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, which was established in the immediate aftermath of the attack. After the annual conferment of this important award, ceremony attendees would assemble in homage at Sheridan Circle.
Peter Kornbluh, now a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and then a GWU graduate student who helped spearhead the award and memorial initiatives, recently explained that after the first few awards ceremonies there was a need among the victims’ families and friends for something at the site much more concrete: an approximately three-foot high monument with a granite base, crowned by a bronze plaque with the profiles of Letelier and Moffitt that matched the commemorative coin handed out with the award. The inscription reads “Justice, Peace, Dignity,” followed by the victims’ names, birthdates, and Sept. 21, 1976.

It is curious though that although peace has since returned to Chile, justice and dignity are still watchwords for many victims—and their allies—of Pinochet’s terror. In fact, in Chile, many of these actors and the organizations they have formed turn to memorialization to achieve a justice and dignity that has been far from forthcoming despite two official truth commissions (Rettig, 1991 and Valech, 2004), modest economic reparations, and a few nominal convictions of Pinochet’s perpetrators. A 2007 conference report, Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action, suggests memorialization is second in import only to economic reparations for victims of state sponsored violence. As such, Chile in the post-dictatorship era has seen almost unparalleled activity in memorialization and commemoration events, with many, if not all, formulated under the language of human rights.

But back in the US human rights language isn’t normally associated with memorial making—though, importantly, the Letelier-Moffitt monument is. It was fascinating for me to learn of the relationship between the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award and accompanying monument. This is undoubtedly an indicator of the vibrant human rights movement which was ignited on exactly the same day Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973. As Edward Cleary writes in the opening pages of Mobilizing for Human Rights in Latin America (2007), “The watershed event in the contemporary human rights period for most observers of Latin America from the United States and Europe was the bloody coup that occurred on the ‘other September 11th.’” Thus, while Pinochet flexed his power, so too did the families and friends of Letelier and Moffitt.

By establishing a human rights award in conjunction with a human rights memorial, these activists responded with powerful practical and symbolic tools to reproach Pinochet’s crimes against humanity, insisting on the political meanings of this sacralized ground. In fact, in a delayed way, the memorialization efforts in DC in 1981 can be considered a precursor to the many human rights memorials that stand today in Chile. And this is of no small significance because, according to the “Memorialization and Democracy” report, Chile “has made exciting progress in reconstructing the memory of gross human rights abuses” and “serves as an example for other countries.”

Yet like Chile today and DC yesterday, marking sites of tragedy and terror is hardly a seamless process. In DC, Kornbluh and company met opposition from the political right, including conservative pundits who labeled the monument “communist.” Moreover, between its construction and inauguration, the monument was defaced with red paint on more than a couple of occasions by, it is suspected, Pinochet’s embassy officials. This forced Kornbluh, after many hours cleaning and much elbow grease, to buy a tarp and chain to protect the monument.

As for Chile, memorializing sites of tragedy and terror, of detention and torture, comes with an impossibly long list of complications that include, but are not limited to, state stonewalling, schisms among human rights organizations, and site specific contingencies. Yet, a closer reading of these complications reveals more than the controversies that they provoke: an engagement by civil society to confront directly—and publicly!—the atrocities of the past. In Chile, alone, there are close to 150 permanent human rights memorials, with 12 of those deemed National Historic Monuments.

Today the Letelier-Moffitt monument no longer generates the controversy it once did; nor, do I suspect, does it receive more than modest attention beyond the insiders who know the story of Orlander Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Kornbluh, though, would like to see an addendum added (next) to the monument that specifically cites the terrorist attack to better inform those passerbies wondering what it marks. Because as much as it memorializes Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, so too does it begin to shed light on the influence of an international human rights movement sparked by Chile’s military coup–and, of course, how this movement has turned towards memorializing sites of tragedy, torture, and terror in an effort to achieve justice and dignity.

~ Zachary McKiernan

Image credits: Peter Kornbluh (monument), Zachary McKiernan (sketch)

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on “Off the Wall,” the blog of the National Council on Public History from 2010 to 2012.

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