Orlando Letelier/Ronni Moffitt Memorial
Designer, Ned Echeverria
This tiny monument on “Embassy Row” memorializes the victims of a horrific politically-motivated attack. In the process it alludes to an American legacy that is rarely celebrated in the official landscape of symbols.
A circular bronze plate about two feet in diameter seems to be exploding upward from paving stones. On the plate we see two likenesses in low relief. They are a man and a woman, born decades apart but with a common date of death, September 21, 1976. Precisely five years after that event, this monument was dedicated at the very location where their murder took place. It even refers to the nature of the attack.
In 1971 Orlando Letelier was appointed Chile’s ambassador to the US under the democratically-elected, Socialist-leaning government of Salvador Allende. Many governments worked to destabilize, if not overthrow this new “communist” regime, not least the US of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Two years later, the military coup led by General Auguste Pinochet put an end to five decades of democracy in Chile.
Letelier was brought back to Chile, brutally tortured for 12 months, and ultimately expelled and stripped of Chilean citizenship. He continued to speak out against the regime, and found a position in the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, one of the leading “think tanks” that adhere to the governmental structure based in Washington. He was driving a car to work, together with his assistant Ronni Moffitt, then aged-25 and her newlywed husband, Michael, who sat in the back. At a point going around Sheridan Circle, a huge explosion took place under the driver’s seat, the result of a plastic explosive placed in the chassis of the car, which blew a “circular hole, 2 to 2 ½ feet in diameter” in the car. Letelier was killed instantly and Roni Moffitt died within the hour. Michael crawled out the back window, and ultimately survived.
A massive FBI investigation made clear that this murder was committed by Chilean operatives at the behest of Pinochet. Indeed, in 2016, after Pinochet’s death and Chile’s return to democracy, a Chilean court has reopened its investigation into the murder (and others committed in the US) and requested extradition of Pinochet-era figures for trial.
While so many of Washington’s official monuments seek to impress by their often hoary vastness, this tiny monument on “Embassy Row”, privately funded, speaks back to them eloquently. This monument trades grandeur for modesty and heroic abstraction for particularity. It is among the first to focus on victims and makes visible the real consequences of America’s role in the world.