Each year, the gathering in honor of slain Chilean opposition leader Orlando Letelier and his colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, is filled with the fervor of human rights activists and like-minded politicians as well as affectionate memories of Letelier and Moffitt.

But what's a good ceremony without some recounting of fumblings and failings?

So last night at the 11th annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards, amid the discussion of the contra aid vote and the denunciation of Reagan policies in Latin America, there was some gentle humor to amuse the crowd -- which is generally about as familial and informal as a Washington dinner for 300 at the Omni Shoreham can get.

When Joe Eldridge, the former director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) for 12 years, accepted the award for his organization, which monitors and publicizes human rights abuses in Latin America, he confessed he was haunted by the mishaps:

Like the time in 1978 when a WOLA staffer was escorting a young Sandinista, Roberto Vargas, to Capitol Hill to meet people. "I remember getting the call from the D.C. Jail," Eldridge said. "It seems that Roberto had tried to enter the Cannon House office building with a revolver with 50 rounds of ammunition. When he was stopped and asked why he had a revolver, he said he needed some protection."

And the pitfalls:

"Do you know how much coaching is required," Eldridge asked, "to get a Latin American politician to compress a speech into five minutes to fit a busy senator's schedule?"

But both Eldridge and current WOLA director Alexander Wilde reaffirmed the organization's commitment to "the long haul," and Wilde said a newer challenge for the group will be "protecting people who live not in military regimes but in fragile civilian ones."

Some critics have claimed that WOLA soft-pedals human rights abuses by governments on the left, such as Nicaragua's, but Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said last night, "What they've reported has held up over a longer period of time and under more scrutiny than anything the U.S. has concocted."

The other recipient of this year's award was Paraguayan Bishop Mario Melanio Medina who founded a human rights advocacy group in Paraguay and spends most of his time working in the impoverished Chaco region of the country. He is considered one of the most outspoken opponents of Paraguayan strongman Alfredo Stroessner.

Eleven years ago, Orlando Letelier was driving to work at the Institute for Policy Studies -- where he ran the international program and Moffitt was a staffer -- when a bomb planted under his car exploded as the car rounded Sheridan Circle. The bombing is considered one of the worst acts of political terrorism ever in Washington.

The awards ceremony is sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, and its denizens are always present at the dinner as is Letelier's widow, Isabel. Among others there last night were William Sloane Coffin, now president of SANE/Freeze ("If you can think of a better name, let us know"), and Cora Weiss, director of the Disarmament Project at Riverside Church. The political turnout included Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and John Breaux (D-La.).

In his impassioned keynote speech, George Miller (D-Calif) said that Congress has a straightforward decision to make about contra aid. "A vote yes means a continuation of war; no means peace. It's as simple as that.