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Edward Kennedy was well-known in Chile. His staunch defense of human rights won him the admiration of many here during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). Immediately after the military coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, Kennedy began trying to get political prisoners released.
He helped several high-level government officials in concentration camps get out of prison and into refuge in the United States, including Orlando Letelier, who was subsequently murdered by the Chilean secret intelligence services in Washington, D.C. in 1976, and the current Minister of Public Works, Sergio Bitar. Both had been cabinet members during the Allende government, and were being held in Dawson Island, located in the extreme south of the country.
Ted Kennedy was despised by the Chilean military. At his behest, in 1974, the U.S. Congress adopted the “Kennedy Amendment”, suspending all security assistance and weapons sales to Chile, in reaction to the brutal repression unleashed by the military junta. After the Letelier assassination in September 1976, the amendment was extended through the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act to prohibit weapons transfers to any country involved in systematic human rights violations.
Ten years later, Kennedy visited Chile and was received at the airport by Pinochet supporters who threw eggs at him. But the reception he got from the Chilean people was massive, the largest one he had ever received, and one he would never forget, he said.
During a visit to the United States last September, President Michelle Bachelet awarded Senator Kennedy with the Order to the Merit of Chile, the government's highest civilian award, for his commitment to human rights and democracy during the Pinochet dictatorship.
“You, Senator Kennedy, were such a friend to Chile in our hour of need,” said Bachelet as she delivered the award. "You were there for us when human rights were being massively and systematically violated … You understood what was happening from the very beginning ... and you acted accordingly."
During his last years of life, he continued to support human rights victims in Chile, helping the sister of U. S. citizen Boris Weisfeiler, who disappeared in Chile in January 1985, find the truth about her brother’s fate, and writing letters to Chilean and U.S. government officials in support of her search.
A statement released Wednesday by the Chilean government reads, "In Chile, Senator Kennedy will continue to be present as one of the most powerful and influential voices in the United States demanding respect for human rights and the restoration of democracy in our country. His permanent concern about political events in Chile during difficult times, including his memorable visit in 1986, which contributed to Chile's transition to democracy, as well as his participation in 1990 in the inauguration of Patricio Aylwin's presidency, commit Chile's eternal gratitude."