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A Terrorist’s Second Thoughts

Look into the face of Virgilio Pablo Paz Romero. Do you see a terrorist?

Sitting in Versailles, a sprawling Cuban restaurant in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, the only thing that seems to separate Paz from the middle-aged, Cuban-born fathers eating with their kids is the distinctive cleft in his chin. There is no trace of the hardened gaze of his youth three decades ago.

Then he speaks, explaining intensely that he didn’t realize how American he had become until Sept. 11. “I see pictures, footage, and I feel like crying. I never thought that anybody could do something like that. The people who were killed could have been anybody. They had children and families--and this was done because some religious fanatics think that all infidels should have their same damn beliefs.

“I was so shocked, so mad, so insulted by this atrocity that the only thing I regret is not being 25 again to enlist and go kick ass,” he says.

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Others said the same after the attacks, but Paz of all people should understand. Half a lifetime ago, a similar passion led him to enlist in another war. But on which side?

In 1976, a decade after arriving in the U.S., Paz was stateless, having refused U.S. citizenship amid his self-imposed exile from Cuba. “I thought that becoming an American citizen was pledging allegiance to a flag other than that of my fatherland. I never considered it.” Then 24, he was a member of a right-wing Cuban exile group that sought to overthrow the Cuban government--an objective aligned with U.S. foreign policy at the time. “That’s how I got in trouble in the first place. The fervor was there in me, and I always thought that we could make a change and that it was our duty to do it.”

That year, he would cross paths with another exile, Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean ambassador to the U.S. Letelier had been Chile’s defense minister on Sept. 11, 1973, the day Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup that toppled the elected leader, Salvador Allende, a socialist who ruled in coalition with the Communist Party. Letelier, Pinochet’s direct superior, was arrested, nearly executed, and imprisoned for a year of hard labor. He eventually was released on the condition that he go into exile. He and his family fled to Washington, D.C.

Others who survived the coup weren’t so fortunate. In the ensuing years, Pinochet’s secret service eliminated his exiled critics one by one--in Argentina, Italy and elsewhere. Letelier felt safe by comparison. Tapping into his old diplomatic contacts in the United States, he began to emerge as a charismatic exile leader, speaking out against the U.S.-backed Pinochet government.

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In many ways, Letelier and Paz were two halves of the same coin-- two men living in exile in the United States, working against what they saw were illegitimate and unjust dictatorships. If their paths crossed today, they might enjoy each other’s company. But an ideological abyss separated them during the Cold War. Paz’s enemy was a communist regime. Letelier wanted a leftist government restored.

On the overcast morning of Sept. 21, 1976, Letelier drove toward his Washington office at the Institute for Policy Studies with two American colleagues. Ronni Moffitt rode in the passenger seat of the baby blue Chevrolet Chevelle; her husband, Michael, was in the back. They didn’t notice the late-model gray sedan tailing them. Inside were Paz and Cuban-movement colleague Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel. When Letelier reached Sheridan Circle on Washington’s Embassy Row, Paz pushed a lever. Letelier’s car exploded. Fragments of glass and metal cascaded onto neighboring embassy lawns.

The bomb had been placed under the car, just to the right of Letelier’s seat. Still strapped into the seat, he mumbled for a few seconds and then went silent. His legs had been blown off. A severed foot remained in a shoe on the ground nearby.

Michael survived without serious injury, but a piece of metal severed Ronni’s carotid artery. She died later at a hospital.

The Pinochet regime had succeeded in murdering another political opponent. Many Americans regarded it as a political assassination.

To many Chileans, it was an act of terror.

Miami’s Cuban exiles, of course, have their own bogeyman. Most have never seen Fidel Castro in person, and it is unimaginable they ever will. But he is everywhere in Little Havana. Amid the U.S. flags, the Spanish-language signs fronting small shops and the eternal flame for the martyrs of Giron, he is conjured up daily--in messages scrawled onto patches of cardboard and taped onto walls, painted in graffiti, typed in leaflets, chanted in rallies.

Extremist elements revile Castro as they conspire against him and strip him of human traits. They baptize him: el dictator, el matador, el diablo. They seek God’s help against him. They have made him into an integral part of their identity. Castro is the embodiment of their disconnection, their dispossession, perhaps even their nostalgia.

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It is widely known that most Cuban exiles hate Castro, but few people realize that many of those exiles also adored Pinochet. The more extreme elements still do. Pinochet stopped his country’s slide toward communism, they say. He was a role model. That explains why Paz says he never expected any financial payment for his role in the Letelier assassination. It was an honor to be associated with Pinochet and the professionals who worked for Chile. Paz’s movement hoped that the Pinochet regime might one day return the favor. They were all fighting for freedom, all combating the communist tide. It only made sense that they would collaborate, he thought.

When Paz was 14, his family left the small town of Santa Clara, Cuba. It was the mid-1960s, and girls were on his mind. Politics and communism were abstractions until his father took his last breath, in Mexico City in 1966, as the family awaited papers to migrate to the United States. His father had hated communism. His death planted a seed in his son.

After settling with his mother in a burgeoning Cuban community in New Jersey, Paz was drawn toward political mentors who criticized the communists. At 16, Paz became the youngest member of the small, radical Cuban Nationalist Movement, an adolescent among angry and uprooted men. The older exiles offered Paz an outlet for his youthful rage. They wanted to overthrow the Cuban government. “We believed in being efficient and in being committed,” Paz says, his voice still proud.

In America, Paz had little to lose. He was unmarried, childless, careerless. He gave up his university studies for the exiles’ war. In an insular and nostalgic community, he found himself seeking acceptance, and the price seemed to be dedication to the cause.

When he first observed Letelier in Washington in September 1976, Paz knew little about him. He had been told that Letelier was a friend of Castro, which might have been enough for him. Paz had gone to Washington because he was asked by fellow exiles to work there with Michael Townley, an American who had spent several years as a hit man for Chile’s secret service. Paz insists that he did not know in advance that he was supposed to assist in an assassination. The mission was one of reconnaissance, Paz says.

But then it changed. Townley received orders to take action. He assembled the bomb in a hotel room with help from Paz and Suarez, whose nickname was “charco de sangre"--puddle of blood.

“Perhaps I should have left, but I didn’t,” Paz says. “God, I was there. I was already part of the conspiracy.” But Paz was hardly a passive victim of circumstance. U.S. investigators later determined that Paz and Suarez had helped Townley assemble the bomb, and that Paz and Suarez had driven Townley to Letelier’s home to plant it under his car.

As for the FBI’s conclusion that Paz pushed the lever that blew up the car, Paz obliquely claims that he was in New Jersey when the car exploded. Then he quickly changes the subject.

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If Paz was troubled by his involvement, as he now suggests, his fear of criticism back then from his peers prevented him from abandoning the mission. The ultimate shame for Paz would have been to not live up to his commitment. “You don’t believe,” they would have said. “You aren’t man enough. You don’t have the dedication.”

francisco javier letelier is one of four sons of orlando and isabel Letelier. At 42, he is just two years younger than his father was when he was killed. For more than a decade, Francisco has lived in an artist’s loft in the hardscrabble Oakwood neighborhood of Venice. He is a visual artist. A lush, oversized painting of a Buddhist child in a saffron robe is on the wall of an unfinished addendum to his work studio. The child, head shaven, might look fragile were it not for the haunting, aged-beyond-his-years wisdom of his eyes. The child seems beyond hatred.

A year after the assassination, Francisco went to Cuba for a Youth Festival and decided to study art. After returning to Washington, he jumped on a Greyhound bus and moved to Oakland, where he attended an arts college and painted murals, many in the Bay Area. In 1980, he traveled to Nicaragua to paint murals as part of a literacy campaign, then returned to California and earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1983.

When Francisco speaks about his father’s assassination today, it becomes clear that every murder is, at its core, personal. Francisco still imagines that he was awakened by a noise as a man slid under the car in the driveway to plant the bomb--awakened only to fall back asleep. He is still shaken by the knowledge that other family members used the car before the explosion. He wonders about a world where a father could be killed on an avenue famous for international diplomacy.

He also still yearns for the truth.

Earlier this year, declassified documents from the early 1970s showed that President Richard M. Nixon and former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger actively promoted the overthrow of Allende, Chile’s democratically elected president, despite decades of denials. Files linked to the Letelier assassination remain classified, however, while Pinochet has avoided prosecution. Pinochet, 86, still lives in Chile, but he is in declining health and there is little chance that he will ever face justice.

But for Francisco, the truth is about more than convicting those responsible for the killing. He believes his family is engaged in a struggle to reclaim history, as his father had made clear after he was told that Pinochet had stripped him of his Chilean citizenship. Just 10 days before the assassination, the former ambassador gave an impassioned speech to 5,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden to commemorate the third anniversary of the military coup. “I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean, and I will die a Chilean,” he said. “They, the fascists, were born traitors, live as traitors, and will be forever remembered as fascist traitors.”

Francisco has spent the last six months completing a vast mural called “Becoming the Circle,” which includes the tumultuous history of Chile and, with it, that of his own family. The mural, unveiled June 29, is on the wall of the Pioneer Bakery at 5th and Rose in Venice.

After years of struggling to understand, years in which his father became a martyred political figure for many in Chile, Francisco says he is coming to terms with the loss. He says he feels more focused, and more mortal, than ever before. “I am no longer that 17-year-old child whose father got killed. I am at the other side of 40 and my youth is behind me. I still feel young, but I am not a kid anymore. It is sobering. It gives me a great sense of urgency to say the things I want to say and to create the things I want to create.”

The shrewdest terrorists hide in full view, dressed in the obscurity of normalcy. Frank Baez had been well-known in his suburban community in southern Florida, where he ran a landscaping business. He was an anti-Castro activist who was married with two children.

You can hate Castro with a vengeance, but out in the suburbs you have to earn money, support your kids, balance a checkbook and call in the orders to keep your small business functioning. It is simply impossible to hate Cuba’s leader every hour of the day. Nor, as the years pass, is it possible to be a fugitive 24/7.

That is probably why Baez wasn’t watching “America’s Most Wanted” on television one Friday night in 1991. If he had, he would have seen a series of 1970s-era reenactments: a party at the Letelier house, the head of the Chilean spy service ordering Letelier’s elimination, a fiery slow-motion pyrotechnic explosion of a car. The segment ended with a photo of Baez, along with his real name: Virgilio Pablo Paz Romero.

After 15 years in hiding, Paz had begun to relax. He had come to believe that he might not be responsible for his actions. Frank Baez, after all, was an innocent man. “Sometimes out of innocence, you think, ‘Well, I didn’t do it.’ And I feel that I didn’t do it. I mean, I knew that I had been part of a conspiracy, but to what extent?”

By failing to see the broadcast, Paz didn’t know he needed to flee once more, as he had in 1978 when Michael Townley was finally extradited from Chile to offer evidence against his co-conspirators. Townley had turned on his associates under terms of a plea bargain, after which he served five years in prison and was placed in an FBI witness protection program. Three days after the television broadcast, Paz was arrested as he parked at work.

Federal prosecutors agreed to drop four counts from a 13-year-old indictment in exchange for Paz’s guilty plea to a single felony of conspiracy to murder a foreign official. In 1998, after serving seven years of a 12-year prison sentence, he was due for parole. But instead of being set free, he was handed to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which placed him in an immigrant detention center for an indefinite period.

Paz could only blame himself. His intense Cuban nationalism had kept him from trying to become a U.S. citizen. Now he was a noncitizen parolee from a country that would not honor a deportation order from the United States. His status meant that the government would not release him in this country. Instead, he remained at the detention center until 2001, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that INS detentions for indeterminate periods were illegal. The ruling also freed Suarez, who also had been held after being paroled from prison.

Their release from detention in Florida was little more than an afterthought to Francisco Letelier, who was awaiting the birth of his second child, a boy. He named the child Salvador, for the late Chilean president, and thereby wed the names of two of Chile’s most famous anti-Pinochet martyrs.

It’s nearly midnight now in Little Havana. As diners leave the restaurant, the chatter fades, as does Paz’s moral tone. It’s clear that, at 50, his feelings about his responsibility for the killing remain peculiar--if shifting.

After his release from the detention center, Cuban Americans in Miami feted him like a good soldier returning home. He was more hero than terrorist. He received many offers of support in his business endeavors, he says. “They said, ‘We loved you and here you are, regardless of what your name is, and we are here for you in whatever way we can be.’ ”

Paz does not seem to feel fortunate that he was locked away for just over 10 years, yet he does seem troubled by at least one thing. Just as the element of the Sept. 11 attacks that most disturbed Paz was the killing of “noncombatants,” he is bothered by the death of Ronni Moffitt, the passenger killed with Letelier. “I almost started to cry over that girl that died,” he says. “I have always felt very, very bad, more so than with Letelier, who was a soldier for his cause--like anybody else who works for or who tries to work against a government. But that girl, she was a helpless person who was sitting there by coincidence.”

It is beside the point that Letelier fought only with words here in the U.S., where free speech is cherished. Somehow, to Paz, it is more acceptable to conspire to murder a Chilean man who opposed a coup leader who killed thousands than it is to accidentally kill a young American woman who worked alongside the target. Maybe that is why Paz repeats a mantra when he talks about the killing: “Orlando Letelier was a soldier for his cause.”

The restaurant has closed. We have moved to the sidewalk and continue talking under a starry sky. Asked if he ever spoke with Letelier, Paz says: “Perhaps I should have. Who knows . . . .” His voice trails off. “I am not happy with what happened. Orlando Letelier was a soldier for his cause and everything, but it was not our thing. We should never have got involved in something like that.”

He longs to avoid having his life defined by what he now sees as a stupid action from his youth. “But it is too late. It is 25 years later.” He looks down and then begins to rub his eyes. They are watery. Perhaps it is fatigue from his night shifts as an alarm company dispatcher.

Later, in a follow-up phone conversation, Paz explains, “I wasted 23 years of my life. I don’t want to go back and rehash and relive something that I have already paid for. It is a little bit tiring to think about these things. It isn’t that I am ashamed, but at my age now, looking back, I would like to kick my ass about my involvement in this.”

If only Paz could take these shreds of remorse a little further, he might tell the Letelier family: “We are sorry for killing a family man, a human being. We were wrong to murder.” Pinochet’s spy chief, Manuel Contreras, was convicted in Chile of ordering the killing. The Leteliers believe the order ultimately must have come from Pinochet himself. If only Paz would tell them--Orlando Letelier would be fixed in history.

september is a difficult month for Chilean exiles. It is littered with grim anniversaries: the military coup that spurred their flight and the elimination of opponents of the Chilean regime abroad. For the Leteliers and the Moffitts, it is a time when they try to build something. On the anniversary of the bombing, members of both families gather each year in Washington, D.C., to offer an annual human rights award commemorating their lost loved ones.

Last September, 10 days before the 25th anniversary of the assassination, Francisco turned on the television and saw the World Trade Center buildings crumble. “Sept. 11 was huge for me. It was so enormous, so staggering. I was thinking, ‘There are people who know about rubble and digging people out, and people who know about going on with their lives after these sorts of things--what you do with the pain after a year, after two years, after a decade, after two decades.”

Soon after, Francisco joined his family for the anniversary in Washington. Walking by a small memorial to his father and Ronni Moffitt at Sheridan Circle, he began to see Ronni’s death in a new light. “It was the first time I really saw Ronni as this echo of victims of terrorism on American soil.” He also has realized that closure, the widely touted grail of the traumatized, is an empty one. Some traumas are simply too shocking to ever come to grips with. “I very clearly felt that some things never get resolved.”

As for those who conduct such attacks, Francisco says, “I feel in many ways that they are kind of victims of a world in which young men come of age and get their heads full of crap.” His sympathy, however, only goes so far.

“I can only say to Paz, ‘If you had the means, you would have done the same thing,’ ” he says. “You would have flown a plane into Havana and killed all the ‘damn commies’ at once--if you had thought of it.

“What you saw was the logical outcome of the same kind of insanity. It grows and grows, and it becomes Sept. 11. Bin Laden took Islam and twisted it into a weird, murderous agenda that has nothing to do with Islam. You just did it in the name of freedom and democracy and twisted it around until it became a mockery.”

Francisco senses that the killers and the families of their victims are inextricably linked by the moment of terror, one that the assassins created, and one that only the Leteliers and the Moffitts can move beyond. “I don’t think I am the agent of his [Paz’s] healing. I can give him benediction, but I don’t think it will heal him. Yes, he harmed me, my family and all the people who loved Orlando, but he also harmed himself. Paz is very right on when he says, ‘This isn’t what I am about.’ This isn’t what any of us are here for.”

Today, even Paz appears to be about other things. He has served his legal debt to a society that he finally seems to have a stake in. He lives and works under his own name. As the father of two children--his son is about the same age that Francisco was at the time of the assassination--Paz now understands what his disappearance would mean to them, and what theirs would mean to him.

His link to his own children seems to prevent him from understanding how radicalized young men could steal away sons, daughters, husbands, wives, lovers, mothers and fathers in places like New York and Washington, D.C. He is no longer the disconnected adolescent looking for acceptance in a brotherhood of extremism. He has something to lose. Perhaps there is one less terrorist in the world.

*

Eric Pape last wrote for the magazine about the standoff between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.


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