Was Thatcher’s Friendship with Augusto Pinochet Indefensible?

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The very public eulogies given by Margaret Thatcher’s ideological descendants in the wake of her death were seen by many to be a cynical attempt to push a neoliberal narrative of modern British history in a time economic strife. It was obvious, claimed her detractors, that several subjects would not be covered in any depth in the broadcast media, no more so than her policy of legislating state sanctioned homophobia and her support for authoritarian dictatorships across the globe.

In the name of freedom, Thatcher cultivated close relationships with some of the worst regimes on Earth, including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (pre-Kuwait invasion), Suharto’s Indonesia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But even her relationship with Suharto, a perpetrator of genocide whom she described as “one of our very best and most valued friends,” cannot be compared to the closeness expressed in her friendship with Augusto Pinochet.

If we were to accept Thatcher’s rhetoric of the defence of civilisation, democracy and freedom, Pinochet would seem an unlikely ally, let alone a close friend and confidant. Following the United States directed destabilisation of the Chilean economy, Pinochet came to power in a bloody CIA-backed coup in 1973, overthrowing the legitimate democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. He immediately suspended all political activity and the constitution.

Following the coup, a Chilean army death squad named Caravana de la Muerte, the “Caravan of Death,” flew aeroplanes which dropped the mutilated corpses of political opponents into the sea.[1] Despite minimal military opposition to the coup, Pinochet’s government waged a war of savage repression against the Chilean people, and thousands of Chileans were murdered because of their political affiliation.[2]

Many more trade unionists, leftists and their families were not murdered but faced tortures so unimaginably gruesome that death would have been preferable for them. In an estimate widely considered to be overly conservative, the Valech Commission concluded that over 40,000 Chileans were subject to torture by the Chilean secret police.[3]

It is worth examining the personal testimony of those who were held captive by Pinochet’s secret police to get an idea of how this systematic repression was experienced. Political activist Nieves Ayres and her family were snatched from her home by the Chilean secret police. As American historian Temma Kaplan recounts:

“Once at the prison camp, agents questioned Ayress for hours to gain information about liberal intelligence. She refused to answer and suffered immense torture. Ayress’s torture began with nude beatings. Agents yelled insults at her while they beat her. They screamed, “Speak, red dog, or we will shoot your father and brother in front of you!” Each day her torture worsened. Agents sliced her skin and burnt her with cigarettes. Then they hung her from the ceiling and crammed tree limbs and coke bottles into her vagina and anus. As the days passed Ayress endured more gruesome treatment. Tortures stripped her naked and placed her on metal bedsprings where they shocked her tongue and vagina. Guards employed animals to conduct torture on Ayress and forced her to endure rape by Dobermans. They also shoved starved rats into her vagina. She screamed as the rats ripped and tore their way out. Guards raped Ayress over 40 times and consequently she became pregnant. She feared that if her tortures learned of her pregnancy she would face maniacal experimentation on her foetus. She kept quiet about her pregnancy but as a result of endless torture miscarried.”[4]

This use of systematic sexual violence as a form of political punishment was routine. An account recalls from the Valech Report states that:

 “For women, it was an especially violent experience. The commission reports that nearly every female prisoner was the victim of repeated rape. The perpetration of this crime took many forms, from military men raping women themselves to the use of foreign objects on victims. Numerous women (and men) report spiders or live rats being implanted into their orifices. One woman wrote, “I was raped and sexually assaulted with trained dogs and with live rats. They forced me to have sex with my father and brother who were also detained. I also had to listen to my father and brother being tortured.”[5]

These desperately alarming testimonies should provoke untold disgust in anyone with a conscience, but Thatcher chose to dismiss any such sentimentalism. In 1999, she dismissed opposition to the man responsible for the systematic rape of tens of thousands of women as latent pinko “poisonous prejudices”.[6] These words would have been utterly contemptible if they were expressed during her time in office.

Thatcher apologists have attempted to justify her support for Pinochet by citing the dictator’s support for Britain during the Falklands conflict, arguing that the Falklands left Britain with “a debt of honour”.[7] Yet such statements ignore her pre Falklands admiration of Pinochet. As staunch admirers of Hayek and fanatical anti-Communists, she and Pinochet were natural allies. In 1980, the year after Thatcher became Prime Minister and two years prior to the Falklands War, Thatcher lifted Britain’s arms embargo on Pinochet’s Chile.[8]

After Pinochet’s covert support for Britain during the Falklands War, the personal relationship between Thatcher and the dictator went far beyond that of two heads of state, with the Pinochet family visiting the Thatchers in London annually. This continued long after Thatcher’s time in office. In retirement, the pair regularly had tea parties together.

Much to the consternation of both, reality eventually interrupted their cups of tea and lady fingers when Pinochet was indicted for human rights violations by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón.[9] Thatcher did everything in her power to ensure that he would not face justice for his crimes.[10] During the legal battle to avoid extradition to Spain, she regularly visited Pinochet, and lobbied Tony Blair’s government in public to ensure that he would not be extradited. In a gross perversion of reality, she compared the Blair government’s treatment of Pinochet to that of a police state.[11]

In the full knowledge that Thatcher was not on their side, the peoples of Latin America mostly contemptuously ignored her death. Unsurprisingly, the tiny minority of Chileans who recall fond memories of Pinochet chose to mourn the passing of their dictator’s backer.[12]

Supporters must remember that part of her legacy was her support for a man responsible for thousands of murders and the systematic use of torture and rape. A total lack of empathy for the victims of Augusto Pinochet is part of that legacy too, and demonstrates that Thatcher failed to meet even the most minimal standards of human decency.

Article by James Donnelly.

1 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6973614.stm

2 http://elpais.com/diario/2011/08/20/internacional/1313791208_850215.html

3 http://elpais.com/diario/2011/08/20/internacional/1313791208_850215.html

4 Elizabeth Simmons ‘Torture Under Pinochet’s Regime’ Paper Given to the University of Alabama, Huntsville 2009

5 http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2007/2/7/torture-under-pinochet-we-were-peeling/

6 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1999/oct/06/pinochet.chile

7 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3635244/Thatcher-always-honoured-Britains-debt-to-Pinochet.html

8 http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/04/neruda-pinochet-thatcher-chile-murder-exhumed.html

9 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/195413.stm

10 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/victims-of-pinochets-police-prepare-to-reveal-details-of-rape-and-torture-1183793.html

11 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1999/oct/06/pinochet.chile

12 http://www.la-razon.com/mundo/Seguidores-Pinochet-lamentan-fin-Thatcher_0_1813018712.html