Why Thatcher’s shadow still lingers over Latin America

The Iron Lady will remain just as divisive in death as she was in life, note authors.

File photo shows British Prime Minister Thatcher dancing with US President Reagan during State Dinner at White House in Washington
Thatcher was always willing to support Reagan's hawkish interventions in Latin America - from his relentless encouragement of civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, to his backing of military regimes [Reuters]

On April 8, hours before news of Margaret Thatcher’s death broke, the British press reported that the body of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda would be exhumed to clarify the cause of his death nearly 40 years ago and put the matter to rest once and for all. Neruda died in September 1973, a matter of days after the right-wing coup that overthrew the democratically elected left-wing President Salvador Allende, of whom the poet was a staunch supporter. 

Although the official version of events stated that Neruda died of cancer, there has since been significant speculation that his death may have been slightly more sinister affair, undertaken by the military government that took power through the coup. Within a couple of hours, the short article on Neruda had been overshadowed by the announcement that Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister for over a decade (1979-1990), had died peacefully in her bed at London’s Ritz Hotel at the age of 87.  

However, these two seemingly unrelated news items – one about the exhumation of a Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet and the other about the death of the first female Prime Minster of Britain – are united by their protagonists’ link to the notorious General Pinochet, one of the ringleaders of that fateful coup who would become dictator of Chile and, until 1990, head one of the most murderous regimes in Latin America during the Cold War. 

This is the very same Pinochet that Thatcher called a friend and remained loyal to even after the Chilean dictator was arrested on charges, including murder and torture in London, in 1998 at the request of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon. Pinochet’s arrest and the controversy surrounding his regime of terror – still subject to considerable scrutiny and investigation today as the Neruda exhumation indicates – did not deter Thatcher’s adoration of Pinochet, as she wrote to then Prime Minister Tony Blair to appeal for her friend’s release. She openly thanked Pinochet for his support and assistance during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas conflict between Britain and Argentina. 

Indeed, Thatcher’s role in the conflict in the South Atlantic has certainly not helped her popularity in Latin America today, most notably in Argentina where she will be mostly remembered for the controversial sinking of the Belgrano, which resulted in the death of over 300 Argentine service personnel. Any potential eulogising of Thatcher in Argentina will no doubt be assuaged by the recent scandal surrounding allegations that her government sold weapons to the Argentine military junta in the years before war broke out in April 1982. The fact that the British government was acutely aware of the atrocities being committed by the junta against the Argentine population only makes its choice of buyers even more scandalous and hypocritical.

 Hundreds ‘celebrate’ Thatcher’s death

British intervention in Latin America was certainly not unprecedented and can be traced back to the pre-independence period, reaching its apogee in the post-independence phase. However, the consequences of Thatcher’s rule reverberate for beyond Britain, not only as a result of her belligerent stance towards the Argentines, but also as a result of her close relationship with repressive dictators like Pinochet and her friendly relations with President Reagan, whom she went as far as calling “the second most important man in my life”. 

Whilst President Obama praised Thatcher as a “champion of freedom”, tributes and eulogies to the self-styled Iron Lady have been relatively restrained south of the Rio Grande, other than on the Falkland/Malvinas islands,  where “Thatcher Day” is an annual celebration. In contrast, as a number of Latin American leaders, including Colombian leader Juan Manuel Santos and Sebastian Pinera from Chile, expressed their condolences, an official statement from Buenos Aires remained notably absent. 

The Latin American press appeared rather less muted, with the Argentine press discussing her deeply divisive character and controversial role during the Malvinas/Falklands conflict, as well as her refusal to negotiate with her adversaries, citing her treatment of the Irish hunger strikers during the Troubles. On the other side of the Andes, the Chilean press discussed her close relationship with Pinochet, with opinions on the Iron Lady’s legacy understandably split between Pinochet’s opponents and supporters. In the aftermath of her death, Thatcher cuts a rather controversial figure in the region. 

Thatcher’s Latin American saga 

It could be unambiguously stated that no other British Prime Minister has had the sort of influence over Latin America as that of Thatcher, at least since the 19th century when the likes of Palmerston and Gladstone viewed the American sub-continent as a priority for their informal imperialist policies. 

Thatcher would become a staunch supporter of some of the Latin American dictatorships of the period. Through her coup d’etat-happy son, she allegedly backed Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner’s repressive military regime. Moreover, her legacy is not only palpable in the Southern part of Latin America, but in Central America, through her strong friendship with Reagan, whom Thatcher supported through thick and thin, even when the Iran-Contra scandal came to light in 1986. Just to clarify, that’s the same Iran-Contra affair that resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 people, mostly Nicaraguans, mainly at the hands of the guerrillas known as the Contras, who quickly gained a reputation for all sort of brutalities and human rights violations. 

Also in Central America, Thatcher was a devoted defender of the 1989 invasion of Panama led by the US under the name “Operation Just Cause”. The invasion came about when General Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panama’s president and one of the US’ former allies, joined forces with their Cold War foes after a series of spats with his former employer in the CIA and then President George Bush Sr. According to the inconsistent and hypocritical foreign policy pursued by Thatcher, it would seem that toppling a renegade leader in a move tantamount to a personal vendetta was essential, whilst supporting bloody regimes like those of Pinochet and Stroessner in Latin America was acceptable. 

A special relationship 

We've had riot shields, we've had riot gear, we've had police on horseback charging into our people, we've had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground....

by Arthur Scargill , NUM leader

It was her relationship with Ronald Reagan, more than anything, which characterised Thatcher’s stance towards Latin America. She was always willing to support Reagan’s hawkish interventions in Latin America, from his relentless encouragement of civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, to his backing of military regimes from Guatemala to Brazil and Chile.

A notable exception is Thatcher’s reaction to the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, a seemingly rare moment in which Thatcher and Reagan were at odds. What is not clear is whether Thatcher’s disapproval stemmed from the fact that she was not consulted in advance about the invasion of one of Britain’s former colonies, causing embarrassment to her government. 

Like Reagan, Thatcher had such a disdain for all things progressive that she basically supported and tolerated every reactionary right-wing dictator across the world with the exception of those in Argentina and only because they challenged her over the Falklands/Malvinas islands (a fact that did not stop her government from supplying weapons to her opponents). 

She was an admirer of Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire and of the South African Apartheid and she did not hesitate in backing the “good” Khmer Rouge against the government established by the People’s Republic of Kampuchea with the support of Vietnam in 1979. In fact, her anti-Marxist sentiment was so strong that she even attempted to ban the word “sandinista”, a move that resulted in the British punk rock band The Clash releasing an album bearing the title Sandinista. 

Wherever Reagan intervened, Thatcher was close behind. In the name of freedom, they brought down governments, invaded countries, provided potentially unstable states with weapons of mass destruction, and kept some of the most barbaric regimes of the 20th century in power, against the wishes of most of the international community and at the expense of thousands of lives. 

It is this shameful record for which Thatcher should be remembered in the region. The impact of Thatcher’s rule on ordinary people in Latin America was really not so distant from events in Britain at the time. We cannot help but recall the words uttered by controversial NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) leader Arthur Scargill during the 1984-85 miner strikes: 

“We’ve had riot shields, we’ve had riot gear, we’ve had police on horseback charging into our people, we’ve had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground…. The intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state.”  

Given the brutal dictators tolerated, supported and funded by Thatcher, her government and allies, Scargill’s words seem particularly apt and show that the Iron Lady will remain just as divisive in death as she was in life, not only in Britain but thousands of miles away in Latin America. 

Cara Levey is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at University College Cork, Ireland. She is also a Coordinator at the Argentina Research Network in the United Kingdom.

Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.

You can follow Manuel on Twitter @mbarcia24