A Facebook group had, it seems, been planning for several years to make ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’, from the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’, No 1 song in the UK when Margaret Thatcher died. I have no idea what’s topping the charts in Venezuela these days, because I’ve been busy marking student essays at the university where I work. Maybe that’s what did it. An essay topic insinuated itself into my brain, and like the Ancient Mariner’s woeful agony, wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d buttonholed you and shared my tale, so here it is:
‘Compare and contrast the lives and political careers of Hugo Chavez and Margaret Thatcher’
The world lost two colourful and controversial political figures in 2013. Both had served long terms as leader of their countries: Hugo Chavez as President of Venezuela for fourteen years; Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Britain for almost twelve.
Both leaders divided their nations into dramatically polarised groups – those who loved them and those who hated and detested them. Both achieved considerable international recognition during their lifetime. Time ranked Chavez among the world’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ in 2005 and 2006. The same weekly had Thatcher in its ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’. The British magazine New Statesman (admittedly leftist) placed Chavez eleventh on their list of ‘Heroes of Our Time’. A BBC poll to find the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ had Dame Maggie at number sixteen on the list – a ranking somewhat devalued, I fear, by its having Princess Diana in third place.
|Pouring cold water in Northern Ireland|
Thatcher is said to be the only post-war Oxford-educated PM not to have been awarded an honorary doctorate by her alma mater. Chavez on the other hand received several such awards, from universities as far away as South Korea, Russia and Beijing.
Both were ideologues, committed to particular, somewhat extreme political doctrines which they single-mindedly applied in the face of strong opposition: Thatcher to the monetarism of Milton Friedman, and Chavez to socialism and populism, and his revolutionary heroes, Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara.
Both formed strong bonds with like-minded leaders on the international stage: Thatcher with US presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Father, Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Prime Minister of apartheid-era South Africa, PW Botha; Chavez with South American neighbours Fidel Castro and Rafael Correa, and Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad.
Thatcher crushed the unions, broke down the traditions of collective workplace bargaining, championed an individualistic, free-market privatised economy where financiers were given free reign, and paved the way for a new society with summers of content for the wealthy and an underclass tucked away out of sight, occasionally rising in disorganised protest and ruthlessly suppressed. British Labour MP Glenda Jackson, speaking in a parliamentary debate after Thatcher’s death, described that lady’s achievement as ‘the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country.’
Chavez took on the problems of poverty and slums associated with uncontrolled urbanisation, addressed the evils of inadequate food production and profiteering, and reduced poverty in Venezuela from 59 to 24 percent of the population. He was the leader of a South American nation struggling with the legacy of colonialism, corruption, large-scale poverty and huge inequalities of wealth distribution.
Thatcher, on the other hand, headed a West European country with a history of imperialist and colonial exploitation, and the sixth largest economy in the world, who went to war with a much poorer and technologically inferior South American state to preserve her nation’s right to own a tiny island in the South Atlantic Ocean 12,500 km from its own shores. Cynics have suggested that, if not for the wave of jingoistic patriotism and media frenzy generated by this ten-week mini-war, Thatcher might have been a one-term rather than a three-term Prime Minster. Even her first election victory, in 1979, was achieved with the support of former National Front voters, who deserted their far right nationalist whites-only party to side with the ‘Iron Lady’.
Both premiers came from relatively humble origins – Thatcher, daughter of a Grantham grocer, who did, though, own two stores; Chavez born to small-town working class parents. Margaret Hilda Roberts, however was able to marry a millionaire businessman, Denis Thatcher, who financed her through law school (after her first career as a chemist foundered), supported her in her early political career, and purchased their two comfortable homes, in Chelsea and rural Kent. In an interview in 1970, Hubby Thatcher is quoted as saying, ‘I don’t pretend that I’m anything but an honest-to-God right-winger – those are my views and I don’t care who knows ’em’. Funny how those right-wing loonies always seem to find a way to bring God in on their side. Maggie’s father-in-law, incidentally, was apparently born in New Zealand, so I and my fellow Kiwis can claim some interest in the Baroness’s rise to power.
The Venezuelan leader died in office after a battle with cancer, still popular enough in his own country to have been re-elected to a fourth term as president in 2012. The dear departed Briton was more or less obliged to resign as PM in 1990, shortly before the first Gulf War, which she had egged on – and in the face of serious opposition to her iniquitous poll tax. She lived to see Britain plunged into an economic crisis from which it still has not recovered, brought about in large part by her policies of deregulating the finance sector and fostering greed-driven capitalism. According to reports, she went slowly insane, afflicted with dementia for the last thirteen years of her life.
Perhaps Thatcher’s most shameful legacy was facilitating the destruction of an alternative political voice representing the viewpoint of ordinary people. Her long-term political crony, Lord Howe of Aberavon put it differently: ‘Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.’ Indeed, the subsequent Labour Government under Tony Blah was ‘labour’ in nothing but name.
Whatever you may think of Hugo Chavez, he kept alive the belief in other possibilities – at considerable personal risk. He was actually ousted in 2002 by a coup (said by some, himself included, to have been supported by the United States and the CIA). This belief is lent strength by the fact that the coup leaders had so little local support they were forced to hand back the reigns of power to Chavez after a mere forty-seven hours, making it possibly the shortest military takeover in history. Well, to be fair to Dame Maragaret, she did survive an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army in 1984, and no one would deny that she had the courage of her dubious convictions. According to one source, she was turned down for a job in 1948 as a research chemist for ICI on the grounds that she was ‘headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated’. Violence in Northern Ireland increased considerably in her first term of office, and nine IRA members died on hunger strikes in English prisons. After the assassination attempt, however, she did seem to moderate her stance on Ireland, so perhaps she was not entirely unresponsive to the alternative point-of-view.
Thatcher’s economic policies have sometimes been credited with putting the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain – though the gloss seems to have gone off the ‘Great’-ness again in the last year or two. Even at the time, however, it depended very much on where you were looking from. Her first term as Prime Minister saw a decline of thirty percent in manufacturing output, and unemployment reaching an all-time high of three million plus. Much of her apparent success could be attributed to the huge sell-off of state assets, and increased profits for the companies that survived.
After her resignation from active politics, Thatcher was employed by tobacco giant Philip Morris as a ‘geopolitical consultant’, in a role similar to that played by Aaron Eckhart in the 2005 movie ‘Thank You For Smoking’ – only Thatcher was for real.
As for Hugo Chavez, it would be hard to find a national leader with more starkly contrasting economic and social policies. Undoubtedly, he had the major advantage of heading a country said to have the world’s largest reserves of crude oil. Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem necessarily to oblige a government to show concern for its people. Chavez’s so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ nationalised several key industries, increased spending on health and education, and aimed to develop systems facilitating participatory democracy. His ‘Mission Zamora’ was a reform programme aimed at redistributing land to the landless. Needless to say it was vehemently opposed by vested interests who hired assassins to terminate supporters and beneficiaries of the reforms. In 2009, Chavez and other like-minded South American leaders established the Bank of the South as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund, which they perceived as pursuing an unsympathetic political agenda. Former World Bank chief economist, Nobel Laureate and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz is on record as expressing approval of this project.
Of course, Chavez had his critics abroad as well as at home. He did not endear himself to the Younger Bush’s administration with his criticism of the US invasion of Iraq. The organisation Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2008 claiming that government action in Venezuela was eroding the independence of the judiciary and ‘undercutting journalists’ freedom of expression’. To put that in perspective, HRW’s headquarters is in the Empire State Building in New York City, and its principal source of funding is George Soros – of whom I have written before.
One example of the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela is a case involving a judge Maria Afiuni, who was arrested on charges of corruption. Apparently she had released on bail a banker charged with large-scale fraud and illegal currency trading. HRW and other groups including the US Department of State felt that the learned judge was being unfairly treated. Chavez’s government was of the opinion that she might have been unduly influenced by under-the-table incentives. Who’s to know?
Well, no doubt debate over the legacies of these two late lamented will go on, with little agreement possible between entrenched positions. Baroness Thatcher was seen off at a state funeral on Wednesday with much British pomp and ceremony. Sadly, some might feel, US President Obama was otherwise engaged, and Hilary Clinton declined her invitation. In their stead the US was represented by George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney – relics, one might think, of a more clearly defined political age. Former apartheid South African President FW de Clerk was there – but not Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, current president of Argentina, who, I understand, was not invited.
Chavez’s funeral was apparently a less formal, more musical affair. Ms de Kirchner was in attendance, as were Cuba’s Raul Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko as well as Brazil’s Dilma Vana Rousseff. Actor Sean Penn and Hollywood director Oliver Stone had kind words to say, as did maverick film-maker Michael Moore, who quoted Chavez as saying, on their meeting in 2009, ‘He was happy to finally meet someone Bush hated more than him.’ A man could have worse things inscribed on his tombstone.