The former Prime Minister's reinvention of the ex-dictator as a champion of liberty emerged as she visited him yesterday for afternoon tea. It was perplexing: this was the same General Pinochet who overthrew the legally elected government of Salvador Allende, and established a regime that carried out wholesale torture and murder.
During the supposedly impromptu visit, Lady Thatcher was accompanied by Sky TV crews, which broadcast the proceedings live.
The general, smiling and almost moist-eyed with adoration, said through an interpreter: "Lady Thatcher, it's an honour for me to be here. This is a small house but it is full of love and gratitude for you. It's only a small way to thank you for your kindness."
Lady Thatcher, her features softened by the words, responded graciously: "I am glad you are comfortable... You set up a constitution suitable for democracy, you put it into effect, elections were held, and then, in accordance with the result, you stepped down."
This analysis differs from the commonly accepted view that, after a bloody coup in 1973, Pinochet headed a savage dictatorship in which political opponents were kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered by his secret police force. True, in 1990 he stepped down from power after losing a poll. But by way of compensation, the general gave himself virtual immunity in Chile for crimes committed by his junta, and appointed himself a life senator.
Neatly avoiding such detail, Lady Thatcher took the opportunity to thank General Pinochet for his help during the Falklands War. "I know how much we owed to you for your help during the Falklands campaign: the information you gave us, communications, and also the refuge you gave to any of our armed forces who were able, if they were shipwrecked, to make their way to Chile."
This was the second time they had taken tea together since General Pinochet arrived in Britain. Last October they supped at Lady Thatcher's home in Belgravia. Eleven days later the former dictator was arrested by Scotland Yard officers after an extradition request from Spain on charges of human rights abuses.
Lady Thatcher's visit to the Wentworth Estate in Surrey, where the general is under house arrest, came just two days after the House of Lords ruling that he did not have immunity from prosecution.
After tea, biscuits and cakes, Lady Thatcher posed for photos with the general and his wife, Lucia, who had exasperated her neighbours by bellowing through a megaphone at protesters massed outside the estate.
Not everyone basked in the warmth of the two former leaders' mutual admiration. Torture victims of General Pinochet's secret police said they were saddened by Lady Thatcher's praise for his regime. Carlos Reyes, of the human rights group Chile Democratico, said: "Lady Thatcher has got it wrong. Pinochet killed our democratically elected president, killed thousands, disappeared thousands more, and sent tens of thousands into exile. Chile became a concentration camp. Is that what Lady Thatcher means by democracy?"
Vicente Alegria, co-ordinator of the anti-Pinochet group, Committee Against Impunity, added: "Lady Thatcher should be supporting the cause of justice and the prosecution of this man, so that he can prove in court if he is innocent or not. This is insulting the intelligence of the people."
The general's neighbours at the estate, fed up with his presence there, were positively ungracious about Lady Thatcher's views. One of them said simply: "She is barking mad now, of course. They shouldn't really let her out."
Before sweeping back to Belgravia in a black Jaguar, a cheerful Lady Thatcher told the media: "In the law lords' decision given last week the overwhelming majority of cases - I think all save one - are inadmissible in our courts." With that, she went inside to " rejoice" at her friend's sudden good fortune.
But even as she spoke the Spanish were in the process of sending details of 33 fresh torture and murder cases allegedly committed after the lords' stipulated date of 1988. The Crown Prosecution Service said they were admissible. This promises a long drawn-out extradition battle. General Pinochet may have more opportunities for tea with Lady Thatcher before he leaves.Reuse content