John Cavanagh: Letelier-Moffitt Awards Speech

Welcome to the 36th annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards.

John Canagh at the 2011 LM Awards.

As I look around this room, I am in awe of the thousands of collective years of committed activism and scholarship and struggle for a better world that this crowd represents. When Ronni Karpen Moffitt and Orlando Letelier were murdered 36 years ago by agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Orlando was only 44 years old. And yet he’d achieved enough to be considered one of the revered elders of the human rights movement.

Tonight, we have many long-time progressive heroes in the room. Let me recognize just two. First, a man who began stirring up trouble as a White House aide when he questioned the military build-up in the early 1960s — IPS co-founder Marcus Raskin. And second, the woman who turned her husband Orlando Letelier’s tragic death into a force for justice and democracy: Isabel Letelier.

But, tonight — in many ways — is about the generation that Ronni Karpen Moffitt represents — the teens and twentysomethings. Ronni’s life was cut short at 25, but she’d already made big contributions to the world, and these young people are too. Many here tonight are fighting outrageous student loans, fighting against sweatshops, and shaking up the world in other creative ways. We salute you and your Chilean counterparts here tonight.

At the Institute for Policy Studies, our long-term goal is to speed the transition from a militarized and casino Wall Street economy to a green, caring and democratic Main Street economy. I want to give shout outs to two sets of allies who are giving us a lot of hope these days. First, how about those striking Walmart workers? Isn’t it about time we replaced the union-busting, community-destroying Walmart model of business?

My second shout out goes to our European allies in the fight for a financial transaction tax — what many are calling a Robin Hood Tax. Last week, they got 11 of their governments on board — proving it is possible to fight the financial industry and win. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the The Nation magazine, yesterday referred to my IPS colleague Sarah Anderson, as a “relentless warrior” in this fight. And she is. We’re proud to be working with many of you on this and looking forward to celebrating a U.S. victory.

So, tonight. Tonight, amidst the clutter of money-soaked politics, we have an opportunity to look into the future and celebrate some clear and inspirational paths forward. For this next generation of struggle, a central part of all of our tasks is to figure out how to roll back corporate rights as we strengthen human and labor rights, environmental rights, and peace. With this lens, our distinguished Letelier-Moffitt selection committee has picked two groups on the front lines of urgent battles: the right to education and the right to housing.

At the same time, both groups keep their sites on larger systemic change. The Chilean Students Movement is not just taking on the need for affordable education, they’re taking on the whole free market legacy of the Pinochet era. As our awardees, Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman pointed out on Democracy Now! yesterday, it was Orlando Letelier who predicted that free-market economics would lead to privatization and inequality. Likewise, City Life/Vida Urbana isn’t just taking on the mortgage lenders, they’re taking on the whole free market legacy of the Reagan and Bush eras. Both movements are planting the seeds of transformative change through direct action. Both are expanding our imaginations on how to make change happen.

John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies, which hosts the annual Letelier-Moffitt human rights awards ceremony and reception. www.IPS-dc.org