In 1993 or 1994 I nearly met Margaret Thatcher in Chile.
Given that her funeral is tomorrow, Wednesday 17 April 2013, and that my previous blogpost was a reflection on the death and funeral of another long-standing leader of global reputation, both decisive and divisive, like her, I offer the following anecdote about the time I nearly met Margaret Thatcher in Chile.
When I left school I went to work as an English teacher at the Liceo De Aplicacion in the centre of Santiago de Chile. I spoke no Spanish upon arrival, and I learned the language slowly, through talking with my students, playing football and watching dubbed versions of The Simpsons in a local completo bar, eating hot dogs and drinking beer. Every day I walked along Lord Cochrane Street on my way to work - this experience was the catalyst that got me interested in the British involvement in Spanish American independence, which I have spent the last decade researching as a historian.
Although my two English co-teachers and I had been sent my a renowned British gap-year work placement organiser, we were formally employees of the Municipalidad de Santiago, to whose austere buildings we went each month to wait to be presented with our pay-cheques. From the many hours of waiting in turn to be called forward I can still vividly remember the dark shade of brown of the corridor's carpet.
In March 1994, when we had been in Santiago for six months or so, we received an invitation from the Municipalidad to a day-time reception to meet and greet Margaret Thatcher. At the time I wasn't really sure of the point of the event - researching it today I see that she was being made an Illustrious Citizen of Santiago, as well as promoting her recently published autobiography and making a symbolic visit to General Augusto Pinochet as a gesture of thanks for his support during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. Pinochet himself had lost a referendum on his continuing rule in 1990, although in 1994 he remained as the head of the Armed Forces, and so retained considerable power and influence over the government of the transition to democracy. We often detected this shadow in the presence of tanks on the street, and in many Chileans' continuing reluctance to talk about politics in public. The most memorable episode of her trip to Chile was that she fainted during a speech.
As the date of the reception approached, my friend and I resolved that we would refuse to meet or greet her, as some sort of gesture against her politics, with which we disagreed with gusto. We eventually consented to being lined up and displayed as symbols of British-Chilean cooperation, and after she had thanked the schoolchildren who had danced and sung in her honour, she moved towards us along the line. At the last moment we ducked out of the line, and congratulated ourselves on such a staunch rejection of the policies of privatisation, the poll tax and so on. Mrs Thatcher, of course, glided by, barely noticing our rejection - presumably she was well used to such gestures, and did not waste energy on taking offence.
And that was that, a moment much more significant in my own political awakening than in the life of Margaret Thatcher or the history of British-Chilean relations. As the protocol continued, I noticed that Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis Thatcher, was stood, forlorn and ignored, in the centre of the large hall where the festivities were ongoing. I stepped past the negligent security detail and asked him how he was enjoying Chile. Not much, he responded. 'You can't get a decent G&T here', he bemoaned, and he complained that the 'bloody natives' were extremely demanding of his wife's time. We chatted for a few minutes about the heat, language learning and gin and tonic. Then it was time to go, and he and Mrs Thatcher departed the building.
Margaret Thatcher's loyalty to Chile and to General Pinochet was absolute, especially during his imprisonment in Britain in 2000 awaiting (and eventually avoiding) extradition on charges relating to human rights abuses committed by his dictatorship. This week I have thought about the image that occurred to me at the time, of General Pinochet supping pisco sours with Margaret and Denis Thatcher, the evening after I nearly met her, lamenting why so many people failed to respect them for having saved their respective nations.