Friday, November 09, 2018

Orlando Letelier, murdered on September 21: A biographical sketch

Again I think of Orlando Letelier, whom the Chilean regime murdered with a bomb under his car in the middle of Washington. He was murdered on September 21, 1976, and that same year I met him because of his visits to the Netherlands and our cooperation to try to politically and economically isolate the Chilean military civic regime. At that time he lived in Washington and I lived in a boat in Amsterdam. 
Orlando was 44 years old when he was murdered. I was 28 years old in September 1976. I learned of his death while making a bicycle ride through the province where Aafke and I got married and where we lived until September 1974. Today is the official start of autumn. Yesterday it seemed like summer.

Jan Joost Teunissen, the author
In January of 1973 I went with my wife to Chile, because I wanted to work there in the agrarian reform, first a few months and then several years. Chile was one of the few countries in Latin America where agrarian reform was not a motto, but was put into practice. We lived in the south of Chile, near Temuco, in cooperative farms. I wanted to sense closely the problems of self-management and rural development. It rained and the wind blew a lot, life was like in Holland in the past, quiet. 
I traveled in old train carriages with wooden benches, full of rural inhabitants with their bags, slowly sliding down the gently sloping ground, dragged by an old-fashioned steam locomotive. He stopped at each station. I thought about how in my youth I had looked at the steam locomotives that came from Germany through the railway valley. 
During the day I worked with the men and at night I sat together with families at a wood fire talking or drinking mate, a kind of tea sucked in a dried pumpkin or an iron pot with a thin silver pipe. At night my wife and I slept together in wool ponchos that we had spread on the wooden floor. 
We returned after seven months. I did not want to return, I felt at home in Chile, but my wife organized a vacation with her mother and siblings in the Netherlands and then I had to come. In retrospect, fortunately, because even before the military coup, the army raided our cooperative. A report in a Chilean newspaper declared that they were looking for 'foreigners'. 
Later I heard that they were looking for us. I went to work in Holland for the solidarity committee that I had helped establish a year before the coup. I researched the possibilities of boycotting the Chilean regime, I maintained contact with politicians and journalists, I wrote articles, I gave lectures and I edited a magazine. 

One day, when I was twenty-seven, they called me from the Transnational Institute and asked me if I wanted to help Orlando establish contacts in the Netherlands.
Orlando was about the same age as my father when he died. He had a warm voice, sensitive eyes and could tell stories beautifully. He was Chilean, had worked abroad for a long time and was Minister of Defense at the time of the coup. He had been in concentration camps and prisons after the coup of 9/11 (1973) and was expelled abroad after a year in prison. 
We were in a car on the road from Amsterdam, my new home, to The Hague. Orlando was sitting next to the driver in the front seat, I was in the back seat. He leaned back, bent his head to the side, closed his eyes and said he was going to sleep for a while. When he opened his eyes, he turned to me and asked, "What should I ask for later?"
Orlando was the first Chilean to come to the Netherlands on behalf of the resistance, who asked me for advice. He had held important positions, but he saw me as someone who knew better than he what he could ask of the Dutch politicians. I liked that. What I also liked was his immediacy and charm.Orlando came to Holland a couple of times that year and every time I saw him, the last time on September 4th. I bought an Italian suit and while walking through Amsterdam he looked with approval at my new suit, he gave me a pat on the shoulder and said: "It fits you well". 
A week later we had the great annual demonstration in Amsterdam against the Chilean dictatorship and Orlando would be the main speaker. At the last moment he canceled it because they also wanted him in Washington as a speaker. 
On September 10, I received a call from the Dutch news agency ANP asking me to comment on the decision of the Chilean regime to deprive the Chilean speaker of his nationality the following day. The journalist read the decree law of the deprivation of his nationality and it became clear that the regime had taken the sanction because Orlando was involved in boycott actions in the Netherlands. I said Orlando would not come to the event the next day because he was asked to speak at a meeting in Washington. A few days before he had called me and apologized for his late cancellation. 
After the ANP reporter's call, I was in an euphoric mood. Not only had we had success in the Netherlands, because the largest foreign investor had withdrawn from Chile, but it also proved that the Chilean regime was sensitive to boycott actions. I was proud of the success, I had a large role in it.Twelve days later came the blow. 
My wife and I made a bike ride in the north of the Netherlands and spent a night with friends at a farm a few miles from the house where we got married seven years before. With binoculars you could see our house, in the meadows, to the left of the water mill. In the morning, after the coffee we said goodbye. We went down the driveway and at the moment when we would continue our journey on a secondary road, my wife realized that she had forgotten her purse. She went back and I waited for her at the entrance, enjoying the autumn sun. It was September 22. 
My wife was late in returning for a long time. I thought: she is certainly talking to her friend, as always. When she returned by bicycle, I saw that something bad had happened. 
She staggered: "Orlando is dead ... He was killed yesterday with a bomb under his car". 
I could not believe it. 
At the corner of the driveway, sitting on the bar of my bicycle, I started crying. The new pain settled into an old pain. A few years earlier I had heard that Bernardo, with whom I had lived in an agricultural cooperative in Chile, had been killed shortly after the coup. He was the father of two small children and had a sweet wife. Many nights we had sat by the fire, talking or staying in silence, sucking the mate from time to time. 
Francisco, from the same farm, was also killed. He was seventeen years old and strong. When we were going to harvest the wheat he placed with a big smile, along with another man, a bag of seventy kilos on my neck, which immediately fell on the ground. They put it back on my neck and I had quickly grasped the art of carrying bags. Like Bernardo, Francisco was killed by the military. 
For many years I heard Orlando's voice in my head and I felt his hand on my shoulder. For many years I thought of Francisco and Bernardo.


Blogger dr. Zdenek DRABEK said...

Beautifully written, Jan, very beautifully. If you think that Orlando was a good man, you are at least as good as him and that is why I have always, ever since I met you, liked you as a human being. Zd

8:15 AM  
Blogger giovanni said...

Thanks my friend! I like you at least as much as you like me. JJ

1:05 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home