Diario Judío México - I had the privilege of covering Senator Kennedy’s trip to Argentina and Chile in 1986 for Newsweek. It was one of the most memorable experiences in six years of reporting from the region.In Buenos Aires, the government of President Raul R. Alfonsin had just successfully prosecuted in civilian court the military architects of the Argentine “dirty war,” and Kennedy’s coming to Argentina in the aftermath of that singular and momentous event was in itself an important symbol of international support.
The contrast between what the United States sometimes unfortunately has meant in the region, and what it could mean, couldn’t have been greater during the Argentine leg of Kennedy’s visit.
Twenty-three years later memories remain bright of how the Senator gave a moving, eloquent evening address downtown to human rights activists and survivors–many of whom he knew personally from the worst days of repression. Meanwhile, down a few blocks along Calle Corrientes, demonstrators protesting the simultaneous appearance by David Rockefeller torched cars, battled well-armed police, and broke store windows.
Rockefeller, like his late brother Nelson, had been an irritating and self-interested apologist for the military junta. (Rockefeller retainer Henry Kissinger had actually given the generals a “green light” for their illegal and mostly clandstine rampage at the beginning, in 1976.) Going back to the hotel that night the motorcade carrying Senator’s party and the press had to move gingerly in a drizzling rain around the disturbances, which gave the evening a particularly sad cast.
Following a visit with Alfonsin, Senator Kennedy traveled to the Argentina province of La Rioja (which he repeatedly called “La Roija,” to the enjoyment of his hosts) to give homage to Mons. Enrique Angelelli, the progresive Catholic bishop killed in 1976 by the military in a staged car accident. Angelelli was himself a profile in courage, staying in the province as death squads murdered his priests, then came for him, while the Church heirarchy in Buenos Aires issued mute protests.
Then-Gov. Carlos S. Menem, at the time a “reformist” Peronist and later a successful candidate for president, tried to dominate the Kennedy stay in La Rioja, staging a big parade complete with brass band as the senator arrived in the capital. That night Menem hosted the senator and his sisters Jean and Pat in a raucous private party.
The scene was pure Fellini a la gaucho. After several drinks, Menem–a short man with long hair and sideburns–hoisted an ornate sword, waving it unsteadily about his head, alleging how if it were up to him he’d travel with Kennedy the next day to Santiago to fight Captain General Pinochet. The patent bathos had the Kennedy sisters rolling their eyes, while the senator somewhat uncomfortably eyed the gesticulating Menem and his gleaming weapon. (Later, as president, Menem pardoned the Argentine generals imprisoned under Alfonsin, against Kennedy’s advice and strong, if private, pleadings.)
After dinner that night Kennedy aide Greg Craig worked long, tense hours negotiating with Menem, the Alfonsin government (the real local human rights champions) and Chilean authorities how the Senator, his party and the media were going to get to Santiago. The next morning we loaded into two small planes and took the harrowing trip over the Andes.
Upon arrival, the pinochetists were well-armed with eggs and insults while the police looked on passively. (Former Foreign Minister and Kennedy friend Gabriel Valdez, his clothes splattered with eggs, greeted the senator at the airport, as a pro-government mob howled outside.) Later, Kennedy got the last word, when he repeated on several occasions, “I am not an enemy of the Chilean people but I am an enemy of torture, kidnappings, killings and arbitrary arrests.”
Several years after Kennedy’s trip, when I worked with the National Democratic Institute headed by Walter Mondale, we found that the senator’s staff tried to accomodate every worthy dissident and human rights champion from the region in meetings with him. Many of the photos most treasured back home were taken with Senator Kennedy in his office. (Go to Paraguay even today, to the office of then-crusading anti-Stroessner newspaper publisher Aldo Zuccolillo, and you will see a cherished 20-year-old photo of him and Kennedy.)
Later I joined the staff of Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (the person who had the original idea of mandating an annual State Department human rights report) as his senior defense and foreign policy aide. There there was no greater friend of Latin American democracy and its still haunted and too often hunted democrats than Edward M. Kennedy.
When Senator Cranston sponsored a Capitol Hill staff caucus on indigenous peoples, it was usually attended by someone from his office, lawyer Gare Smith of Senator Kennedy’s, and Katy Moran representing Illinois Republican Representative John Porter.
Senator Cranston’s last legislative act, getting the part of the “Cranston Amendment” mandating that the annual human rights report include a section on indigenous peoples, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, after Senator Kennedy heartily endorsed it.
There have been many accolades heard about Massachusett’s senior senator in the past week, but none can surpass a mere recounting of democrat Ted Kennedy’s works in the region, and the huge void that is left now that he is gone.