Saturday, August 29, 2009

Remembering Ted Kennedy

Many moving tributes to Ted Kennedy have surfaced since his death this past week, honoring his commitment to soldiers' families, his fight for social justice, and his abilities as a political navigator in the Senate. Missing in all of these tributes, though, is teh acknowledgement of Kennedy's role as one of the leading voices against the human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime.

Many are familiar with the United States' efforts to overthrow Salvador Allende between 1970 and the successful coup of 1973, ranging from economic sabotage to covert operations to trying to recruit other South American right-wing dictatorships to help overthrow Allende.

After the coup, Kennedy was one of the first American politicians to condemn the Pinochet regime. He immediately began lobbying for those who had been captured, tortured, or exiled in 1973. He also managed to pass the "Kennedy amendment," which banned the U.S. from selling weapons to the Pinochet regime; the weapons-sales ban remained in place until 1990, when Chile finally removed Pinochet through popular elections.

The importance and bravery of Kennedy's early stance against Pinochet cannot be overstated. At a time when many politicians were still deeply embedded in a Cold War mentality that saw Allende's democratically-elected left-wing coalition government as threat to "democracy" in the "free world," a right-wing dictatorship that was friendly with the U.S. was not only preferable, it was perversely being on the "right side" in the battle for "freedom" against Communism. Many politicians openly supported Pinochet and/or condemned Allende's government, and many more remained silent. Yet Kennedy was able to look beyond the simplistic and ridiculous Cold War "us v. them" syndrome to see the Pinochet regime for what it was: an authoritarian overthrow of a democratically elected government, a regime that was employing torture and murder to further its own ideological and economic agendas. And he acted accordingly, doing what he could to make sure the U.S. was not complicit in the violence that the regime established.

Sure, he couldn't end torture by himself, and the United States government continued to give aid and support to Pinochet. But Kennedy did what he could, and he did it throughout the 17 years that Chile was under a military dictatorship. Indeed, in 1986, he traveled to Chile, where he met with democracy leaders and the families and victims of torture and state-supported murders. Pinochet refused to meet with Kennedy, a clear sign that Kennedy had done something right. Sure, he was pelted with eggs by Pinochet supporters, and he was greeted with pictures of Mary Jo Koepechne in many places he went. But this did not deter him. As he himself observed, ''I am told that there are some people who regard me as an enemy of Chile. I am not an enemy of Chileans, I am an enemy of kidnapping, murder, and arbitrary arrests.'' In 1990, Kennedy returned to Chile as the country transitioned to a democracy.

Compare this to Jesse Helms, who, like Pinochet, arrived to his office in 1973. Helms was an unapologetic supporter of Pinochet, despite Helms' insistence that he was "neither pro-Pinochet nor anti-Pinochet". Helms also went to Chile in 1986, where he met with Pinochet and his supporters. While he was there, the Chilean military beat and set on fire two anti-Pinochet protestors, including 19-year-old Chile-born Maryland resident Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, who died from his injuries. In just one of the many examples of Helms' class, he called Rojas and another woman who survived being immolated by the military "communist terrorists," and when the U.S. Ambassador Harry Barnes (who had tried to get Rojas to a hospital before he died, but was held up) attended Rojas's funeral, Helms vented that Barnes and the (Reagan administration's) State Department were "trying to appease a bunch of leftists and Communists."

Certainly, Helms was one of the most rabid defenders of Pinochet from start to finish, and that does help throw into relief what Kennedy did, but it in no way overstates what Ted Kennedy did for Chile. Indeed, last year, Michele Bachelet came to the United States and awarded Kennedy Chile's Order of the Merit, one of the highest honors Chile bestows, and with his death, Bachelet honored him by saying that Chile was "eternally grateful" for his struggle against Pinochet and his defense of human rights in Chile.

As I said, there are many, many, many great things to remember Ted Kennedy by. And though he fought to help so many people, I will probably always respect the man for what he did in Chile, taking a stance that was unpopular abroad and in the U.S. against a regime that committed some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America in the 20th century. Chileans aren't the only ones who are grateful, Ted, and we will all miss you and your efforts.