By Rosa Mirian Elizalde, on May 29, 2015
Today, at midnight, Cuba will be off of the list of countries that sponsor terrorism issued every year by the US State Department. This marks the end of the period of 45 days granted to Congress to oppose a blockade on the measure; something that seems unlikely because this week the legislature is in one of its many holiday periods and therefore there will be no sessions. The possibility that members of Congress will return to Washington –as an emergency– to address this issue are almost nil, according to local political analysts.
This fact ends a long injustice, though barely mentioned in the US morning papers. Somehave simply replicated –on the inside pages– an agency dispatch recalling that the removal of Cuba from the list had been announced by President Barack Obama to Congress last April 14, and that the process will end with the formality of a notice in the Federal Register, the official US Gazette, which will probably happen on Monday.
So far the cold data. Maybe, if I had not been in Washington DC this week, I would not have noticed something that Saul Landau, the American filmmaker, writer and tireless fighter for the return of the Five to Cuba, who died without seeing them back in Cuba, mentioned to me a few years ago: the White House and the Capitol –the headquarters of Congress– are only a few miles away from Sheridan Circle, the place where the bomb placed by Cuban terrorists residing in Miami, exploded under the car driven by Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier. The explosion killed him and his secretary Ronni Moffitt, in 1976. It was the most terrifying explosion that had ever been felt in the capital of the United States before September 11, 2001, when an airliner slammed into a wing of the Pentagon after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Sheridan Circle is a busy roundabout –still today unavoidable to reach the city center– located in one of the most luxurious neighborhoods of the country, full of mansions, embassies and lavish buildings. It should not have to be linked to Cuba today and an infamous list, but there is a plaque that recalls the exact location of the explosion and its perpetrators: a gang of Cubans –now a bunch of geezers– who continued killing people after this and who have lived a peaceful retreat in Miami.
I’m standing at the same place of which I heard Saul talk about many times. I can imagine more accurately what happened on September 21, 1976, at 9:40 am; and even see the gray car of the murderers and the hand that pressed a button and blew up the car Orlando Letelier was driving. Ronni’s husband, Michael Moffitt who miraculously survived, heard a sound like that of “water on a hot wire” and then saw a “white flash”.
Thrown out of the car by the explosion, Moffitt tried to pull out Letelier who was unconscious nearby. He pulled Leteliler to the nearest tree on the edge of the roundabout. The legs of the Chilean had been severed from his body and with the blast they were thrown about 15 meters away from Orlando. Ronni Moffitt on her own got out of the blue Chevrolet on fire. She seemed to be fine, but, in fact, a piece of metal had cut off an artery in her throat and she would soon die choked by her own blood.
It later emerged that Michael Townley, an American who worked for DINA –the Chilean intelligence service– coordinated the plan under orders of Dictator Augusto Pinochet. Townley recruited the Cuban Guillermo Novo and his terrorist gang, called the Cuban Nationalist Movement, in New Jersey.
Novo helped Townley acquire the components for the bomb. Two gang members, Jose Dionisio Suarez and Virgilio Paz, pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to commit murder”. Both were sentenced to 12 years and released on parole after serving seven. The two of them were in the car that preceded Letelier’s when he arrived at Sheridan Circle. One drove the car and the other pressed the button to detonate the bomb by remote control. A jury convicted Novo and two other co-conspirators, but the decision was overturned on appeal. Later on, Novo was convicted only of perjury for lying to a grand jury about his knowledge of the assassination plot.
Saul used to repeat that, “It is impossible for the White House and Capitol Hill not to have heard the blast, and the sirens of patrol cars, ambulances and fire trucks that soared through the city.” Saul had been a friend of Letelier’s –Foreign Minister and Defense Minister under Chilean President Salvador Allende– and had extended him an invitation to work in Washington, at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), after Orlando managed to escape from Chile, where he spent a year imprisoned after the coup of Augusto Pinochet.
“Terrorism, for those who experience it, means the death of family and friends. It means future trauma, violent dreams and long-term anxiety. Terrorism means bringing terror to hearts and minds, regardless of whether the selected media is a jet, launching rockets, placing explosive devices or fixing a bomb with adhesive to a car,” wrote Saul, co-author, with John Dinges, of an extraordinary book: Assassination on Embassy Row which narrates the political intricacies of this crime.
Victims of terrorism as well as terrorists are not to be found far from the White House and Congress. This is what Saul wanted to warn me about when he told me about Sheridan Circle, always with tears in his eyes. He knew perfectly well the links between counterrevolutionaries of Cuban origin with the US power and Latin American dictatorships that had sacrificed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, as well as more than 3,000 Cubans killed by gunmen protected by successive administrations in Washington.
But on a fine morning like today –not at any place, but standing at the humble bronze and stone monument dedicated to Letelier and Moffitt on Sheridan Circle– I feel that an enormous injustice begins to be redressed, and for the first time in more than 30 years, there are signs in the US government of respect for the Cuban and Latin American victims of terrorism. I dare say that friends like Saul Landau are also honored. He deserved to have lived to see this moment; he who many times raised the lily of common sense against the wall that criminalized Cuba.
And since it is possible to dream when a measure of justice appears; when it is formally announced that the island is no longer in the list on which it should never have been included, maybe we will see John Kerry saying something like what he expressed in 2008, when the US decided, after sixty years, to remove the most prestigious African in the world, Nelson Mandela, from another sinister catalog: “It will help to finally erase the huge embarrassment of having dishonored this great leader, including him on our government’s terrorist list.”
In the foreground, the Letelier-Moffitt Memorial where the bomb exploded. In the background you can see the tree where Orlando Letelier was propped up by Michael Moffitt. That is where the former Chilean Defense Minister and Foreign Minister died, a victim of the terrorist attack of September 21, 1976.