As Americans eulogized Senator Edward Kennedy over the weekend, I also want to take pause and remember his contribution to our nation’s relations with Latin America.
He will be remembered as an effective liberal senator who knew how to work the Capitol, a flawed person who came to grips with his inner demons, and a man who used his name imbued with all its power and mystique of the Kennedy dynasty to tirelessly defend human rights and social justice—both here and abroad.
Of course, more recently he was one of the few senators to challenge the Bush administration’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism policies and the Iraq war, when so many were silent.
Kennedy’s imprint on U.S. foreign policy has been to promote peace, protect human rights, and raise the U.S. role as a moral compass. This was notably true in Latin America, where the Kennedy name already carried much weight.
Nowhere was that mark more exemplary or profound than in Chile, says the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter. Following the 1973 military coup against Salvador Allende, Kennedy rallied Congress to protest human rights violations and worked relentlessly for the release of political prisoners there. By 1974, the Senate approved his amendment that cut off U.S. military aid to Chile—marking the first time for Congress to end such aid without waivers, conditions or delays.
By 1981, Kennedy garnered enough votes in the Senate to enact a ban on all U.S. aid to Chile until it protected basic human rights.
His successful efforts working the Senate to organize support behind these bills cannot be underestimated or overlooked. He possessed an ineffable gift to get a tough deal through—especially one that involved intangibles like human rights in some far away land.
Kennedy won over some of the more conservative senators in order to defend the lives of Chileans from prosecution. In doing so, he demonstrated that America was indeed a beacon of democracy and a source of refuge.
Years later, in January 1986, Kennedy traveled to Santiago, Chile—but Pinochet refused to meet with him, calling him the enemy of Chile.
Upon his arrival in Santiago, Kennedy had said: “I will be the first to propose a law in the United States Congress to repeal the Kennedy amendment if Chile really respects the basic rights of its people and if democracy were restored. I am not an enemy of the Chilean people but I am an enemy of torture, kidnappings, killings and arbitrary arrests.”
Just last year, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, whose father died while in custody of Pinochet’s government and who grew up in exile, honored Kennedy with the Order of the Merit of Chile, saying “you were there for us when human rights were being massively and systematically violated, when crime and death was around our country. You are one of the great, good, and true friends of Chile.” (Tip of the hat to Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman.)
Kennedy continued to lead the crusade against “torture and arbitrary arrests” during the wars in Central America in the 1980s, writes the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cynthia Arnson, “Kennedy was among a handful of congressional leaders…moving to tie U.S. military aid to a swift resolution of the case. The restrictions on military aid contributed to the pressures leading to a negotiated settlement of the Salvadoran war in 1992.”
He knew how to leverage the Senate’s authority to influence U.S. policy and challenge dictatorships, making him a hero of many around the world.
“Throughout the hemisphere, human rights defenders hung photos with the senator in offices—as a highly prized guarantee of protection when they returned home. Senator Kennedy recognized early on that U.S. security ultimately depends on respect for human rights and dignified living conditions,” recalls Virginia Bouvier of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Kennedy’s idealism, his indefatigable fight for social justice, and his vision of a common humanity throughout Latin America and the world will influence our foreign policy for generations to come.