Orlando Letelier

Dumb Dictatorships and the Assassinations of Orlando Letelier and Jamal Khashoggi

Yesterday was a glorious DC autumn afternoon for walking down Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, which includes many statues of national patriots: Churchill, Mandela, Ataturk, Masaryk, Kossuth, Gandhi, among others. There’s a small monument recently placed for assassinated Chilean anti-Pinochet dissident Orlando Letelier. He died on Sheridan Circle in 1976 from a car bomb courtesy of Chilean intelligence via rightist Cuban operatives.

Letelier was foreigner minister, among other posts, under President Salvador Allende until Pinochet’s 1973 coup overthrew the Marxist regime and established a 17 year military dictatorship. The CIA eventually determined Pinochet had ordered the killing. Letelier, who likely was tied to Cuban and other East Bloc intel services, was a chief organizer of anti-Pinochet resistance in America. He helped agitate successfully against international loans for Pinochet’s regime, making him a major nuisance to Pinochet.

But Pinochet gained little to nothing from murdering Letelier, which further discredited his regime and became a permanent obstacle in relations with America. Letelier’s American female colleague also died in the car blast. Pinochet was a sort of anti-communist ally to America and perhaps assumed his transgression would be overlooked.

As Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger softly admonished Pinochet on human rights but commended his saving Chile from Marxism. President Jimmy Carter even with his human rights focus hosted Pinochet at the White House, the only American President to do so. But as the investigation of Letelier’s death expanded, U.S. relations with Pinochet worsened, with Congress levying sanctions in 1980.

Initially the Reagan Administration sought improved ties to Pinochet until realizing his dictatorship was ultimately destabilizing. Secretary of State George Shultz reminded Reagan of Letelier’s murder on Sheridan Circle, which he saw as an indecent assault on American sovereignty. Reagan ended up pressuring Pinochet to democratize, which eventually led to an election and Pinochet’s departure from power in 1990.

Maybe Pinochet gained a personal visceral satisfaction from killing Letelier. But if so, it was the only benefit from his exertion. The murder, whose revelations unfolded across years, became a permanent albatross around his dictatorship’s hopes for friendship with America.

Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are often dumb. They lack internal challenge, transparency and serious debate. They’re both over confident and insecure. They technically don’t need public support yet they are obsessively paranoid about opposition. Even weak and unpopular rulers of stable democracies can rely on completing their elected terms and enacting their lawful policies. Dictators have no such confidence and they often overreact to minor threats.

Certainly Putin in his regime’s various assassinations fits this mold. His victims are largely inconsequential politically. Likely their murders are intended to be instructive to other opponents. But likelier these murders exacerbate hatred of and opposition to Putin. His regime is fairly secure but these murders give the appearance of insecurity and stupidity.

Likewise for the recent likely murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who Turkey says was tortured and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a large Saudi security team. As with Letelier and assassinated Russian dissidents, Khashoggi’s demise almost certainly was countenanced if not ordered from the top.

Khashoggi’s occasional Washington Post columns posed no real threat to the Saudi monarchy’s over 70 year relationship with America. His apparent murder was a typical paranoid overreaction by an authoritarian regime that’s both all powerful and insecure. Saudi-USA strategic partnership will continue as mutual interests require. But the Khashoggi horror will remain as a permanent stain on democratic America’s perceptions of Saudi authoritarian repression.

Constitutional democracy is exasperating but it politically applies Christian understanding about human sin and frailty. All persons, if powerful and unaccountable, can become monstrous. And monstrous potentates in their egotism and isolation are often very dumb. Democracy, in its reliance on laws instead of persons, offers safeguards against monstrosity and stupidity.

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