Jorge Lawton (1945-2014)

Jorge Lawton 

By Barbara Joye

Jorge Alberto (christened George Albert) Lawton first fell in love with Chile as a Fulbright scholar at the Latin American Graduate Faculty of Social Science in Santiago in the late 1960s, following his graduation from Gonzaga University. He soon returned to Chile as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times of London, but in his spare time drew close to the newly elected democratic socialist administration of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, which became the inspiration for the rest of his life.

In 1973, a U.S.-backed coup plunged Chile into a long nightmare under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Lawton would surely have been tortured and killed had he not been in Haiti at the time, researching agriculture for the United Nations and the World Bank. (He subsequently returned to Haiti several times as an investigator for the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States; as a United Nations human rights officer; for the director of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Memorial Institute; and other projects.) 

Before the coup, Lawton had applied for dual citizenship with Chile and changed his name to Jorge Alberto. Thereafter he often referred to himself as “bi-national.” An accomplished linguist, he became fluent in Portuguese as well as Spanish and French, and carried on human rights work in Argentina and Brazil as well as Chile and Haiti. His Latin American experiences included exposure to tragic and violent events, which left permanent emotional scars. But, deeply religious, he also drew strength from the theology of liberation that had swept through Latin America. 

From Haiti, Lawton landed in Washington DC, where he served as an advisor to the exiled Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier until an assassin’s car bomb killed Letelier. He also helped Sen. Harold Hughes to coordinate a Congressional conference that produced legislation to increase oversight of the CIA. In 1974, President Carter’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark, enlisted Lawton to accompany him to Chile to investigate the Pinochet regime’s human rights abuses -- a highly dangerous assignment, especially after Clark left for D.C., leaving Lawton on his own during the last part of his 55-day stay.

On his return, he was tapped by the “Church Committee” (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) as its sole Latin American analyst investigating U.S. involvement in the downfall of the Allende administration. His research resulted in a report which he said had been watered down from an even more shocking draft but nevertheless contained some of the most powerful revelations of government perfidy released in the post-Watergate era.

He moved to Mexico for two years, where he taught at universities and became a top-ranking interpreter for the President of Mexico, a skill which he exercised for the rest of his life between other employment. Returning to D.C., he taught economics, international relations and U.S. policy at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and at the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Institute, while earning a Ph.D. in international economic policy, U.S. foreign policy and ethics from Johns Hopkins University (1986). His dissertation, based on extensive interviews, was a critical analysis of the Carter administration’s reaction to the nascent Nicaraguan revolution.

In 1986 he returned to Atlanta, where he had grown up after his family moved from Connecticut. Based there, he interpreted for many international conferences, congressional delegations, unions, and NGOs and for such notables as Jesse Jackson and Rigoberta Menchu.  He became a personal interpreter for Pres. Jimmy Carter, travelling to Nicaragua to help Carter monitor the 1991 elections. In the 1990s he was also a Senior Fellow at the Southern Center for International Studies and a Distinguished Fellow at the Emory University Center for Ethics in Public Policy.

In 1992 Lawton established South to North Communications, an interpreting and cross-cultural consulting business, and in 1995 he edited and contributed to the essay collection Privatization Amidst Poverty: Contemporary Challenges in Latin American Political Economy (U. Miami). Among his most recent engagements as a simultaneous professional interpreter were two rounds of work with scientists from Mexico, Cuba, the United States and other Caribbean nations on the marine biology of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean region.

In Atlanta, Lawton also joined St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, participating in its Solidarity group that travelled to Latin America annually. He later joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Southwest Atlanta, where he contributed his fine basso profundo voice to their renowned choir. 

Lawton volunteered for many progressive causes in Atlanta, such as the U.S. Social Forum held in Atlanta in 2007; the Caravan for Peace (family members of Mexican victims of the drug wars); the Taste of Latin America fundraising dinners; Pastors for Peace; and a community arts center. He travelled to North Carolina in 2008 to help get out the Latino vote for Obama, and devoted many hours to helping friends in need. For seven years, Lawton was a member of the production teams for WRFG’s Saturday evening bilingual programs on Latin America and the Caribbean, providing meticulously researched commentaries.

He participated enthusiastically in Metro Atlanta DSA, where he shared his knowledge of Latin America and political economics in many study group sessions. Democratic Left was fortunate to be one of the places where Jorge shared his scholarship with the nation. The last piece that Jorge wrote just before passing was: “Another 9/11: Lessons from the 1973 Coup in Chile.”

Lawton had a successful bone marrow transplant in 2012 after learning he had multiple myeloma. He also suffered kidney failure, and in recent months self-administered dialysis nightly at home, where he lived alone. He had been managing well and keeping very active, helping others as usual. On a visit to Emory Hospital’s emergency room for a fever, he suffered a cardiac arrest. He died peacefully in Emory’s hospice unit at noon on Sunday, Sept. 21.

Our friend and comrade Jorge Lawton is survived by his sisters Paula Bevington, Elena Lawton de Toruela, and stepmother Nadine Lawton – and by the many others who loved him.  A celebration of his life is being planned for early November in Atlanta.

Barbara Joye is recording secretary of Metro Atlanta DSA and a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.

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