The assassination occurred as a rising human rights revolution rose to check fascist regimes such as Pinochet’s. While the regime persisted until 1990, in the 43 years since the assassination, the human rights revolution has succeeded in Chile and elsewhere. Today, with fascism and authoritarianism on the rise globally, remembering the resolution of the Letelier case should shore up the morale of those on the side of the human rights angels.
Letelier, living in exile in the United States, had served as ambassador and minister under Marxist President Salvador Allende and was an outspoken opponent of Pinochet. He decried the regime’s fascist tendencies, something that sometimes got lost in the Cold War narrative, which focused on Pinochet’s anti-communism.
The order to kill Letelier came from Manuel Contreras, the head of the Chilean secret police — most likely at the behest of Pinochet. Contreras grew up in the Germanized south of Chile, where Nazis marched in his and other towns in the 1930s. Even after World War II, Contreras retained an admiration for the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. When Pinochet and his allies overthrew the democratically elected Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, and took power, the dictator made Contreras head of the National Intelligence Directorate, known as DINA.
With strong cultural ties to both Germany and Spain, Chile had a political tradition that at times embraced fascist elements. These flourished in the 1970s under the brutal Pinochet regime. Worried about Cuban-inspired guerrillas, Contreras, Pinochet and their allies saw all political opponents as subversives deserving imprisonment, torture or death.
Chilean fascism included all of Nazi Germany’s tenets — anti-Semitism, anti-communism, state control of the economy, hierarchical leadership and intense nationalism — and added its own, including an embrace of Spanish fascism and some post-colonial elements that made it more popular: a rejection of empire and the championing of Latin American unity that made this one of the most potent totalitarianisms in Latin America.
Nowhere did Chilean fascism manifest in Pinochet’s government more overtly than in DINA. Like fascists in Italy and Germany had, DINA members embraced mysticism and the occult, even purportedly celebrating solstices and equinoxes to revive Nazism. Contreras also echoed mid-century fascists and allied with former Nazi and German fugitive Paul Schäfer to use the infamous Colony of Dignity as a detention and torture center for Pinochet’s political enemies. Despite U.S. support for the Pinochet regime, based on its staunch anti-communism, in early 1974, the U.S. Defense Department compared DINA to Hitler’s Gestapo.
While fascism flourished in Chile, however, the mid-1970s also gave rise to a powerful, global human rights movement. In the United States alone, more than 200 groups worked on human rights by the late 1970s. More than 50 lobbied Congress, and about 15 concentrated specifically on Latin America. Groups such as Amnesty International published important reports on torture in Chile and mobilized exiles to demand the freeing of political prisoners — among them Letelier, who had spent a year in a Chilean concentration camp.
This activism forced the U.S. government to focus on human rights abuses — even by Cold War allies such as Pinochet. Democrats in Congress held the first congressional hearings on human rights in 1973. In 1975, Congress passed the Harkin Amendment, which cut off aid to any government that grossly violated human rights unless the president determined that such aid would directly benefit the needy. This struck a blow against the Pinochet regime. The following year, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) spoke specifically about Chile, targeting it for a cut in military aid. It was the first time Congress ended military aid to another government because of human rights violations.
Undeterred, the Chilean government sought to root out its enemies. Back in Chile in the summer of 1976, Contreras, acting through his chief of operations, Pedro Espinoza, entrusted the hit on Letelier to Michael Townley, an American-Chilean explosives expert. Townley had worked with proto-fascist youths in Chile calling themselves Fatherland and Liberty, who wore black uniforms with white armbands adorned with a swastika-like insignia that united three chainlinks and resembled a spider. Leftist critics in Chile called Fatherland and Liberty “a bunch of fascists, paid by the CIA,” and they were correct. In fall 1970, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had requested and received $38,000 for covert support of Fatherland and Liberty.
To kill Letelier, Townley connected with a handful of New Jersey-based anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. While they masqueraded as pro-democracy anti-communists, they were proto-fascists who advocated for an ideology with echoes of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco — and Chile’s own Fatherland and Liberty, demonstrating the international connectedness of fascism.
On Sept. 21, 1976, Townley’s bomb killed Letelier. DINA wanted him to be alone when targeted, but the two Cubans who followed Letelier’s car and pressed the button on the detonator either did not know or did not care that Moffitt and her husband, Michael, were also in the car.
Michael Moffitt survived, and after the assassination, he and Letelier’s widow, Isabel, put pressure on President Jimmy Carter to investigate the murders and in turn put pressure on Santiago. By 1980, Townley and a few Cubans were in U.S. prisons for plotting the car bombing. But the crime’s authors remained free in Santiago, and U.S. officials were hesitant to take meaningful steps against a Cold War ally, even one that embraced fascism.
Human rights activists, however, kept up the pressure. Isabel Letelier and her family kept the legal case alive against Contreras and other Chileans, although Pinochet and the Chilean courts covered up the evidence and evaded responsibility for the murders. In the United States, Democrats in Congress forced President Ronald Reagan to “certify” that Chile was making progress on the Letelier-Moffitt case for military aid to continue to flow.
Finally, after Pinochet left power in 1990, Chilean courts found Contreras and Espinoza guilty. Contreras spent the rest of his life in detention. The governments that succeeded Pinochet ushered in a human rights renaissance. The media and political parties operated freely, elections went smoothly and two truth commissions revealed the crimes of the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship, including the first admission by any Chilean government that the Letelier-Moffitt assassination originated in Santiago. The Letelier case inspired countless activists and lawyers, who sparked a movement that has adjudicated more than 1,000 cases of human rights violations in Chile alone.
Today we should remember the Letelier saga for demonstrating the global power of human rights against the forces of fascism, which we should also recognize as a global threat crossing borders despite ultranationalist rhetoric. Just as Chile operated as a fascist dictatorship in the 1970s, spreading its ideology from Buenos Aires to New Jersey, today’s regimes in Russia, Hungary, the Philippines and Brazil, which have been praised by President Trump, appear to be embracing and spreading fascist ideas. Those hoping to keep these regimes in check should look to the human rights activism that flourished in the late 1970s for inspiration.