Letelier, Boric, and Social Justice in Chile
The following is a guest blog post from Alan McPherson, author of Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice.
On September 21, 1976, a car bomb killed Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the United States, along with his colleague Ronni Moffitt. The murder shocked the world, especially because of its setting–Sheridan Circle, in the heart of Washington, D.C. Letelier’s widow and her allies immediately suspected the secret police of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who eliminated opponents around the world. Because U.S. political leaders saw the tyrant as a Cold War ally, they failed to warn him against assassinating Letelier and hesitated to blame him afterward. Government investigators and diplomats, however, pledged to find the killers, defying a monstrous, secretive regime. Was justice attainable? Finding out would take nearly two decades.
With interviews from three continents, never-before-used documents, and recently declassified sources that conclude that Pinochet himself ordered the hit and then covered it up, Alan McPherson has produced the definitive history of one of the Cold War’s most consequential assassinations.
As journalist Brian Winter noted, the December 19 election of Gabriel Boric as Chile’s new president signals a shifting of power to a new generation. The 35-year-old former student leader was only four when dictator Augusto Pinochet left the presidency in 1990 after losing a plebiscite and an election. Boric rarely wears ties and seems uncomfortable in a suit. He belongs to neither of the two coalitions that have held power for 30 years. And his break with those groups is rooted in his determination to change Chile’s economic story during his lifetime: “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism,” he has promised, “it will also be its grave.”
That cradle rested on another grave, that of Salvador Allende and the democratic socialist revolution he set off when Chileans elected him to the presidency in 1970. In this sense, Chile is witnessing a return to the past, one highlighted in Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice, now in paperback. The book tells the narrow story of a car bomb in Washington, D.C., in 1976, that killed Allende’s former ambassador to the United States Orlando Letelier.
But the wider story is that the assassination also targeted Letelier’s dream for social justice for Chile. Pinochet’s coup in 1973 had already caused the death of Allende and the reversal of his socialist policies. The killing of Letelier meant to discourage any other Chilean, including those in exile, from seeking social justice for Chileans. Instead, Pinochet imposed a radical version of neoliberalism shepherded by economists from the University of Chicago dubbed the “Chicago Boys.” They inspired the Pinochet Constitution of 1980 that cemented the power of the presidency and the military and allowed private businesses to control education, health care, and water. These drew massive foreign investment that raised Chile’s GDP, but they also made the country one of the most unequal in the world.
Frustration over inequality sparked the protests begun in October 2019. The then-president, conservative billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, at first responded by declaring a state of emergency but eventually caved to protesters’ demands. One of these was for a constitutional convention, and Chileans have since sent to that convention delegates that are overwhelmingly progressive—half of whom are women and over 10 percent, Indigenous. The document that emerges will no doubt repudiate the hated Pinochet constitution by assuring “social protection,” or having the state enhance funding and rights for labor, Indigenous peoples, pensioners, students, pregnant women, and more.
Allende and Letelier would have approved, but Boric is no Allende 2.0. Boric is not a Marxist like Allende was. The current global environment is completely different than in 1973. The Cold War that surrounded Allende probably doomed his bold experiment to failure by drawing the hostility of Richard Nixon’s diplomats and spies, who arranged to assassinate a key transitional figure, helped sabotage his economy, and rewarded Pinochet for his coup. Boric, aware of the past, wants to maintain a healthy regime of private enterprise: think Sweden, not Cuba. Also, his concern for the rights of women and Indigenous Chileans is a higher priority than it was for Allende. The new president—and the yet-to-be-unveiled constitution—may actually go further than Allende in ensuring social justice.
Probably the most meaningful difference between Allende and Boric is in popularity. While Allende squeaked into the Moneda presidential palace with a plurality of 36 percent, Boric cruises in with 55 percent of the votes, 11 points over his far right opponent. He will of course contend with a divided legislature, but he will do so with considerable political capital.
Boric, therefore, does not signal Chile coming full circle back to Letelier’s socialism, but rather reigniting some of the hopes shattered in Sheridan Circle.
Alan McPherson is professor of history at Temple University and the author of The Invaded: How Latin Americans and their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations.
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