Chile’s new U.S. ambassador recalls a deadly day in 1976 in Washington and his own escape

Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chile’s new ambassador to the United States, is formally presenting his credentials to President Obama on Wednesday.

These formal events are not normally Loop-worthy happenings. But this one is different.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Turns out Valdes worked with another ambassador from Chile, Orlando Letelier, who — older readers might recall — was assassinated in a 1976 car bombing on Sheridan Circle (that’s at Massachusetts Avenue near 23rd Street NW).

The bombing was organized by American expatriate Michael Townley, a wannabe-CIA agent who worked for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s vicious secret police, DINA. Townley, who served 62 months in prison for his role, implicated several anti-Castro Cubans in helping him carry out the hit.

Letelier, who was appointed ambassador here in 1971, was imprisoned for a year after Pinochet’s 1973 coup. He was released and came to the United States, where he continued to rally opposition to the dictatorship and to work to block foreign investment in Chile.

On the morning of Sept. 21, 1976, Letelier, his aide, Michael Moffitt, and Moffitt’s wife, Ronni, were headed down Massachusetts Avenue on the way to work at a liberal think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies, when the bomb went off as they rounded the circle — right in front of the Chilean Embassy, as it turned out — killing Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Michael Moffitt, in the back seat, survived.

“I was his other assistant,” Valdes told us. He had been a graduate student at Princeton but was asked to come down and help Letelier.

Letelier, who lived in Bethesda, “normally picked me up on Wisconsin Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue,” Valdes said, and Letelier asked him if he wanted a ride the next morning. “I told him I couldn’t because my wife wanted to go to the supermarket and I have to stay with my small children.”

“I was not in that car by a miracle,” Valdes said.

Valdes said he loved being in Washington and was much honored to be ambassador. “But it brings back tragic memories as well.”

Fly balls, filet and friends

When we picture “intimate dinner,” there’s candlelight, a bottle of wine and a table set for two.

But, hey, everyone’s definition is different.

Monday evening, President Obama had dinner with mega Democratic donors Jeff and Lora Drezner at their sprawling $5 million bungalow on five acres in Potomac, Md. The Drezners gave a combined $100,000 to candidates and political committees in the 2012 campaign cycle.

For the bargain price of $10,000 per person, or $32,400 per couple for VIP status, (that better be some spectacular filet) you could enjoy an “intimate dinner” with special guest Barack Obama, according to the invitation posted by the Sunlight Foundation.

This marked the fifth of Obama’s six fundraisers for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before the end of the quarter, according to a DCCC aide.

The small party drew 65 guests. Can’t get more intimate than that.

At the dinner, Obama called it a “fairly intimate setting” and said he’d speak less and let the guests “ask questions or give me advice.” He then segued into a riff about the future success of the health-care law, and how Republicans will have to rename it when it is fully embraced.

“First of all, in five years it will no longer be called Obamacare, because when something is working they’re definitely not going to — there will be a whole renaming process similar to National,” he said, according to transcript of his remarks. “I don’t know if it will be ‘Reagancare,’ but it will definitely be — it will be something different.”

But not every meet-and-greet with Obama costs a small fortune. Before the dinner, Obama made a quick surprise stop at Little League games in Northwest Washington. Allegedly pure coincidence, the teams were made up of sons and daughters of a Washington Who’s Who list.

There was Obama press secretary Jay Carney’s daughter (Carney hitched a ride in the motorcade to catch the game). Jim Wallis’s (a former member of Obama’s faith council) son. On one team was senior Obama adviser David Plouffe’s son. And NBC’s “Meet the Press” host David Gregory’s son and daughter are teammates with Carney’s kid.

Only in this town.

They’ll get back to you

Members of Congress send the State Department more than 2,000 letters a year, but the agency does an incomplete job of tracking how quickly it responds.

The Government Accountability Office reviewed 4,804 cases of congressional correspondence to determine whether State was getting back to lawmakers in 21 business days, as it aspires to.

More than half the time, it is. But the other half? Who knows?

About one-third of correspondence was related to consular services, such as getting passports for constituents. In those cases, the agency responds directly to a lawmaker’s constituent, and there’s no telling how swiftly it did so. Other questions, such as what happened in Benghazi, would make up the other types of congressional inquiries.

For what it’s worth, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who requested the GAO report released Tuesday, received a response within three weeks to her inquiry about the agency hiring outside contractors to teach classes on testifying before Congress.

“Without accurate and complete data, State is not in a position to identify elements of the process that may be most prone to delays and develop strategies to improve the timeliness of its response letters,” GAO concluded.

Well, it’s nice to know we’re not the only ones being ignored.

Hold on, Buenos Aires

Remember when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked Obama campaign bundler Noah Bryson Mamet if he’d ever been to Argentina? The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was scheduled to confirm Mamet to be U.S. ambassador there Tuesday, but Rubio blocked the vote for one week. Asked why, his office referred us to the YouTube video of Rubio’s exchange with Mamet at his February confirmation hearing.

Speaking of bundlers, Mary Lang Sollinger, a very early Obama supporter from Madison, Wis., is reported to be the latest front-runner for ambassador to Ireland, according to the publication Irish Central.

Sollinger, who ran for mayor of Madison in 1996 and has been finance director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, is German Catholic, Irish Central reported.

She didn’t confirm or deny whether she was a candidate but did say she’d been to Ireland several times and loved the country. The embassy in Dublin has been vacant since Dan Rooney left in 2012.

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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