“One shouldn’t be happy about the death of anyone, but this woman [Margaret Thatcher] did a lot of harm to us… Therefore I imagine she should be burning in the greatest hell”
These weren’t the words of an ex-miner or Irish republican, but of Carlos Alberto López, an Argentine army corporal seriously injured during the Falklands war. Since 1979 when she came into office, few leaders have had as much of a global impact as Margaret Thatcher. She is remembered in America for her relationship with Reagan; in ex-Soviet countries for her help in the fall of communism; in Western European countries for her rocky relationship with the European Community; in South Africa for opposing sanctions on the apartheid regime; and in Chile for supporting Pinochet. The reason your average Argentinean will know about the greengrocerer’s daughter from Grantham is the Falklands conflict. It is safe to say la Dama de Hierro is not remembered too fondly: as columnist Federico Pinedo in La Nación put it “No-one can love her less than us.”
What is perhaps surprising about this continued rancour is that the war was now 30 years ago, and that the Argentine regime which invaded the Falklands and which Thatcher weakened was an illegitimate, brutally repressive military dictatorship which led a campaign of terror against its own citizens. However, the belief that the Falklands are Argentine is widespread. This was evident when I spent time there last year. Argentineans like political graffiti and messages about how Las Malvinas are Argentinean scribbled or stencilled onto the wall are common. When you tell someone you are English, the ownership of the islands is one of the first topics that comes up. When a poll by YouGov and its Argentine equivalent Ibarómetro measured opinions on the issue, 56% of Argentines said the Falkands were a very important issue for Argentina (only a quarter of Brits thought the issue was very important for the UK). The same poll found 66% thinking the fairest solution to the situation was Argentinean sovereignty. I was working at a local radio station and spoke about the debate on air, tactfully on my last day there. I suggested that the right to self-determination meant the islands should remain British. This did not go down too well: one caller said he hoped my plane home would fall into the sea. Interestingly, it is the Argentinean left who gets most exercised by the debate and strongly believes the islands should be Argentinean, because in the United Kingdom’s ownership of them it sees colonialism and imperialism. Centre-left president Cristina Kirchner has exploited the conflict for political gain with propaganda and strong words to the British government.
But it is the sinking of the Belgrano (leading to the deaths of 323 people) which seems to arouse anger at Thatcher more than the war itself. The ship was outside the exclusion zone and sailing away from the Falklands, and just before the attack the Peruvian President had written a peace proposal. I did not read in Argentinean media acknowledgement of the British argument, which is that the ship was a threat to the British navy because it looked about to perform a pincer attack and that Thatcher had not yet seen the Peruvian peace proposal. Thatcher herself always defended the attack. A representative of la Comisión de Familiares de la Caídos en Malvinas (The Commision of Relatives of the Dead in the Falklands) was sorry about her death: sorry that it was before Argentina had complained to the International Criminal Court in the Hague about her ‘war crimes’, something the group has asked the Argentinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Héctor Timerman to do.
If there is one direct effect Thatcher had on domestic politics that Argentines can be thankful for, it is that the Falklands defeat weakened the military dictatorship. However, it wasn’t this alone which led to democratic elections the following year; public discontent was already high and there were existing divisions within the ruling classes. According to David Pion-Berlin in The Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs “Victory in war would have bought some time for the regime; defeat simply hastened a degenerative process already underway”. Therefore Thatcher is not really credited in Argentina for bringing about the democracy which lasts today. The aforementioned Pinedo claims Argentine democracy was reclaimed by Argentines, responding to “an old founding tradition of our nation” which encompasses the likes of Simon Bolívar and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Furthermore, the Thatcher government was undoubtedly more concerned with the political future of islanders than the Argentines and this was a period when cold warriors were more concerned by Communist dictatorships than equally odious right-wing ones; any destabilising of the Argentine regime was hardly a main objective.
Perhaps there is another important factor swelling the Thatcher hate in this part of South America (particularly in relation to the Belgrano incident and how she defended it): the stridency and brashness of Thatcher and her decisions; her unapologetic us-vs.-them mentality; and the crushing manner of her victories leading to humiliation for her opponents. These are the same things which, perhaps almost as much as her policies, made her British opponents detest her so much on a personal level.