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A Terrorist's Second Thoughts

Twenty-six years after he killed an exiled Chilean ambassador, the assassin and the victim's son, an L.A. muralist, understand a simple truth about young men blinded by ideology

July 21, 2002|ERIC PAPE

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.

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.

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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