Throughout her life, former British Prime Minister and conservative icon Margaret Thatcher struck a divisive figure, as alongside US counterpart Ronaldo Reagan she changed the political landscape indelibly. In death, after passing away at the age of 87 on Monday from a stroke after a long battle with illness, the figure who revelled in the nickname ‘The Iron Lady’ may prove to be just as controversial.
The repercussions were felt immediately in her native Britain, where conservative supporters, politicians and analysts mourned the passing of someone they considered one of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen. In the working-class London neighbourhood of Brixton, meanwhile, a site of two devastating urban riots during her administration, citizens took to the street to celebrate her passing; banners displaying legends such as ‘The Bitch is Dead’, a crude yet telling evaluation of a leadership which did more than most to divide society along class and racial lines.
While the world’s eyes turned on the United Kingdom, they were also watching what happened on the other side of the planet, in Argentina. The South American nation went to war with Thatcher in 1982 in an attempt to recover the Falklands Islands (in Spanish, Malvinas) and, after a bruising defeat, tensions even more than 30 years later remain strained over the events in the South Atlantic. Reams of text have been written already on the subject, and now is the time to explode one of the most prevalent, and most insidious myths that have sprung up around The Iron Lady since she left office in 1991; that, through military force in the Falklands, she restored democratic government to a country crippled by a murderous dictatorship.
The reasoning behind such views follows classic neo-liberal thinking, and is no less damaging for that fact. According to this narrative, widely accepted in the UK, it was the British military’s incursion and expulsion of their Argentine counterparts from the Islands that finally exposed the dictators for the weak cowards they were. W. Alejandro Sanchez, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, sums up this view in an obituary on Thatcher released this week, a text containing more than one sideways attack on the current government of Cristina Kirchner; which, unlike many Argentine politicians who took the opportunity to launch fierce attacks on her legacy, maintained a dignified silence on news of her passing.
“Thatcher went to war with the South American country to protect her citizens in the South Atlantic and ended up, indirectly, may have helped democracy return to Argentina. Maybe history down the road will remember her like that (though probably not by Argentine history textbooks),” the commentator stated, under the subtitle “Margaret Thatcher returned democracy to Argentina”. And why not? The facts seem to line up impeccably: war in April 1982, defeat by June, and the complete collapse of the military government by the following year. There is a slight problem with this perspective, however – the fact that it is based on a pernicious, western-biased fallacy that takes responsibility away from the populations of developing nations, who clearly are not equipped to fight for their own freedom without the aid of our kind-hearted carers in the west.
Let us take a look at the actual facts. By 1982, the military junta run by Admiral Leopoldo Galtieri was in disarray, and no longer had the same ability to strike fear in people’s hearts as it did on taking over in 1976. While still as murderous and evil as ever – the total number of citizens ‘disappeared’ without trial over the duration of the dictatorship is estimated at an astonishing 30,000 – Galtieri’s administration no longer had the power to silence opposition on the streets and in the media. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by those who had lost sons and daughters to the repression and who fiercely campaigned for the truth, at risk to their own lives – three of the founding members were themselves murdered – had now gained international prominence, bringing their fight to the eyes of the world’s media. The disappearance in 1977 of French nun Leonie Duquet, kidnapped and thrown out of a plane over the Rio de la Plata, was another key event which provoked outrage. For many observers, it removed the blindfold; no longer could those in charge claim that their bloodthirsty struggle was aimed solely at militants and terrorists, and opinion changed thusly. Aside from the human rights battle, there were also more prosaic concerns. Rampant corruption and disastrous economic management from the military had left Argentina in an impoverished state, and citizens were tired.
Speaking to FoxNews, Claudio Remeseira recalls a protest in the days leading up to the Falklands invasion which was attended by 30,000 people, representing a fierce test to the legitimacy of the Galtieri regime. For the blog editor, it was no coincidence that in the following days his country went to war. “The national mood changed in favor of the military junta because of the invasion,” he explained, going on to say that if Argentina had reclaimed the Islands “ we would have monuments to General Galtieri in most cities and towns in Argentina… We would have an amnesty and blanket of silence on the crimes of the junta military during the dictatorship.”
There is no doubt, then, that the failure to beat the UK was another blow to a fading dictatorship. But to credit Thatcher with this achievement is an insult to the 649 servicemen, mostly teenage conscripts poorly-equipped, bullied and abused by the upper echelons, who died on the Argentine side, and the thousands who returned injured or crippled. It is an insult to the thousands who died actually fighting the military against impossible odds, picked off one-by-one and never heard from again, to attribute the return of democracy to a lady who never reached anywhere near the warzone. More pertinently, the rebranding of Thatcher as some sort of democratic crusader flies in the face of all evidence accrued during her premiership.
While fighting against one dictatorship, the PM had no problem whatsoever on leaning on another for support. The almost 20-year reign of Augusto Pinochet at the head of Chile’s government was every bit as bloody and repressive as that of the country’s South American neighbours; and yet, Thatcher would go on to become firm friends with a man charged with the killings of an estimated 17,000 people, who gave the UK logistical aid that proved vital in the battle to regain the Falklands. She repaid the favour, supporting his bid for release in 1998 after the ex-dictator was arrested on charges of human rights violations in London, and on his death in 2010 stating that she was “greatly saddened” by his passing.
The examples stack up against the deceased former politician, from her refusal to impose sanctions on the Apartheid regime of South Africa, and her labelling of Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”, to her friendly relations with Indonesian dictator General Suharto: “One of our best and dearest friends,” she said of a man whose occupation of East Timor resulted in over 100,000 dead. More blood on the Iron Lady’s hands, and further reason to continue doubting her commitment to a free and democratic world. Even her most ardent supporters, those who espouse the democracy myth, would not dream of claiming that her mission in the South Atlantic in 1982 was humanitarian. Presiding over a struggling government unpopular with the country and behind in the polls, torn apart by urban rioting, war represented to Thatcher an easy way to get the nation back behind her, just as it had to Galtieri in the build-up to Argentina’s invasion. The difference lies solely in the result: Britain won the war, Thatcher went on to two more landslide elections and cemented her place in the history books as one of the country’s most influential, longest-serving leaders.
In a way, we should not be surprised how the memory of 1982 has been appropriated by neo-liberal supporters as an example of their idol’s commitment to democracy and freedom. Ever since the horrors of the Second World War, the western world has deemed it necessary to seek, at least publicly, a higher calling for their aggression than simply expansion, power and wealth, the three pillars of warfare that have driven nations and tribes to arms since time immemorial. Now, these reasons must take second place to a different motivation. In Korea, Egypt, Vietnam and countless other nations we fought for democracy and capitalism over the evils of Communism. In Iraq and Afghanistan, and soon Syria and Iran our battle now is against Islamic terrorism and the malevolent fundamentalists who propagate it, regarding those nations as a single anti-western entity while remaining blissfully ignorant to the realities on the ground. The spoils of war, the oil, the gas, the soil’s resources, are naturally there to be tapped by the victor, but war for war’s sake has now been superceded by these pseudohumanitarian concerns which are as false and hypocritical as they are patronising.
We take down those ‘dictators’ who do not subscribe to neo-liberal thought, funding rebels and death squads; to fanatics of Friedmanite economics such as Pinochet, meanwhile, we invite them to tea and protect them from harm, as long as they stay on our good side. The truth is that prior to the war the Argentine military had retained friendly terms with the Thatcher government, a right-wing administration with a commitment to anti-communism and law and order proving a worthy bedfellow until that misguided invasion.
30 years on, democracy is well installed as a fact of Argentine life. This of course means its citizens are free to opine whatever they wish about the passing of this divisive figure both at home and in the global sphere. Some, rather more quietly, applaud Thatcher for what they see as her aid in bringing down the dictatorship; some, like Remeseira, are more circumspect about the period. The majority, however, rightly rail against this appropriation of her image as some sort of saviour for the nation.
Mario Volpe, leader of a group of veteran Falklands combatants and a man with more reason than most to condemn his own nation, led the attacks on Monday as he launched a strong criticism of the PM. “[She] died free, without being judged. She will not go down in memory as someone who has given anything to peace,” the activist explained, before moving onto perhaps the most notorious episode of the conflict: the sinking of the Belgrano cruiser, outside of the war zone, provoking the loss of 323 lives.
“I will always remember that decision to sink the cruiser, because having had the opportunity to stop the war she never did, she chose to intensify it.”
The Belgrano, more than any other event and certainly more than the idea of having brought back democracy, will be the defining moment of Thatcher’s relationship with the Argentine people. The Falklands War deserves to be remembered in simpler terms, a desperate fight between two administrations that were failing fast, and needed to regain legitimacy at the barrel of a gun. Thinking of this differently, despite what we have been taught of our leader’s actions in the West, is an affront to every young man and woman who perished at the hands of the military junta as they strived to re-establish freedom, not from a comfortable London office but in the streets of Buenos Aires and throughout the nation. In the same month that we mourn those who went to the Falklands and never came back, on April 2nd 1982, these brave individuals, and not the ‘Iron Lady’, are our true democratic heroes.
Daniel Edwards is a journalist in Buenos Aires. His article The Gospel of the Slums, on Pope Francis and the Liberation Theology movement, appears in the April issue of CounterPunch magazine.