Icons of iconoclasm

What did Margaret Thatcher and Hugo Chávez have in common?

By a mischievous trick of fate, Baroness Thatcher and Hugo Chávez, iconic ideological opposites in life, achieved a strange symmetry in death. Both had grand military exits. Both were deeply mourned and roundly cursed in equal measure. Both left a legacy that will divide their countrymen for generations.

Perversely, both icons were iconoclasts. While Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, economic transformer and handbag-wielder extraordinaire in the 1980s and 90s – and Venezuela’s revolutionary ‘comandante eternal’ were poles apart politically, each possessed a militant sense of destiny and an ego bigger than Belgium. They pursued their opposing goals ruthlessly.

Thatcher’s combative, steely will was legendary. Even political soulmate President Ronald Reagan was handbagged after sending US troops into Grenada. “Ronnie,” his beloved Maggie reportedly stormed down the hotline, “you’ve just invaded a Commonwealth country!” She was often luckier in her foes than her friends. It was the Soviet media who dubbed her the Iron Lady, and her old French adversary President Mitterrand who said she had the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe. She took both as compliments. But it was her own Cabinet that finally deserted her, ending 11 years in office. Ironically, while Thatcher’s pivotal role in ending the Cold War – by persuading Reagan to support Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika – won her lasting admiration in Eastern Europe, her domestic policies evoked unending hatred from the British Left.

Hugo Chávez, similarly divided Venezuela as much in death as in life. While extravagantly mourned by the poor, who benefited from his social programmes, he was condemned by the middle classes and in Washington as a flamboyant demagogue who allowed corruption and waste to flourish. But whatever survives of his political legacy, failure to care properly for the great showman’s earthly remains meant that plans to embalm his body and put it on display, emulating Lenin and Mao, had to be abandoned. So, while the modestly born Chávez achieved greatness, he had final humility thrust upon him.

Meanwhile, from the other end of South America emerged a figure destined to raise humility to new depths. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was described as a “Pope of firsts”: the first Jesuit, the first to take the name Francis, the first from the Americas, and the first to insist on travelling on the Vatican’s team bus. His early comments – “There’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space,” he said, when ushered into the papal apartments – suggest further pontifical precedents can be expected.

Political successions are more orderly in China, where Xi Jinping assumed supreme control for the next ten years, with just one vote cast against him. Predictions that China will become the world’s leading economy in that time depend on many things, not least whether the Communist Party can control corruption, deal with widening social inequality – and handle demands for greater political freedoms. One dissident vote doesn’t quite do it.

Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding father, Jomo, assumed the presidency after securing the narrowest of election victories and then overcoming a legal challenge to the result by his defeated opponent, Raila Odinga.

Nicos Anastasiades won a run-off election to become president of Cyprus, a poisoned chalice made more toxic by having to oversee huge imposts on the island’s banks. It was the latest twist in the eurozone’s endless crisis, which has provoked the rise of protest parties such as the Five Star Movement of the Italian comedian, Beppe Grillo, who ran his anti-austerity campaign from a camper van.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe graciously supported constitutional change limiting presidents to two four-year terms. It will not apply retrospectively to Mr Mugabe, who took power in 1980. He is now 89. Beppe Grillo is not the only politician with a sense of humour.


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