Argentina ups the ante in new battle over Falklands
There are three perennial passions in Argentina: football, the tango and the country’s claim to Britain’s South Atlantic outpost, the Falkland Islands. Even the build-up to Argentina’s World Cup game against Germany on Friday failed to entirely deflect attention from what in the last few months has become the hot political issue.
In the latest of a series of provocative moves—provocative, at least, when seen from the Falklands and the Foreign Office—the Argentinian Parliament on Thursday established a commission to investigate how to win control of the islands Argentinians refer to as the Malvinas.
In Britain, the issue is regarded today mainly as historical.
Margaret Thatcher and Rex Hunt, the Falklands governor when the Argentinians invaded the islands in 1982, joined 293 others at Lincoln’s Inn in London on June 13 to mark Liberation Day.
Plans are being prepared at the Ministry of Defence and other government departments for a march-past by veterans down Whitehall next year, the 25th anniversary of the war.
But for the Argentinian president, Nestor Kirchner, a Peronist with leftwing leanings, the issue is more than just historical. He has embarked on a renewed push for the islands and enlisted the support of other left-leaning leaders, from Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Venezuela’s Hugo ChÃ¡vez.
For Mr Kirchner it is personal as well as political. He was born in, and became mayor of, the southern Patagonian port of RÃo Gallegos, a city that sits directly across from the Falklands and from where Argentinian troops embarked for their failed invasion.
“Kirchner views the Malvinas question with a Patagonian eye, a view hardened by the geographic proximity and the war,” according to a Buenos Aires-based political analyst, Rosendo Fraga. “I don’t think it was Kirchner’s original intention but the sovereignty issue has provided a rallying point to gather left-leaning Latin American governments into an anti-colonial bloc.”
British government officials are privately dismissive, seeing the sudden renewed interest in the islands as little more than a piece of political cynicism, motivated by Mr Kirchner’s drive for re-election next year. One of the officials said on Friday that about 200 diplomats, journalists, ex-combatants and legislators took part in Thursday’s commission launch “but it contained few surprises, just the usual rhetoric from firebrands about the islands, depicting the United Kingdom as the Evil One”.
The British government, while far from alarmed, is expecting the rumbling to continue and become louder as the election draws closer.
Mr Kirchner’s approach represents a marked change in the conciliatory, passive approach that Argentina has been more or less pursuing since the fall of the late dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri in the aftermath of the war.
The strategy of trying to woo the islanders reached its height under the presidency of Kirchner’s predecessor, Carlos Menem: Argentinians still cringe over his decision to mail islanders, as a Christmas present, copies of Winnie the Pooh. Cooperation between Argentina, Britain and the Falklands has broken down in various areas: fishing agreements, oil exploration, joint scientific cruises and air links between the Falklands and Latin America.
Kirchner succinctly summed up the new approach on April 2 when he spoke at the annual remembrance service for the dead of the 1982 war: “The Malvinas must be a national objective of all Argentinians, and with dialogue, diplomacy and peace we must recover them for our homeland. But dialogue, diplomacy and peace do not mean we have to live with our head bowed.”
The new mood is reflected in the streets. The Argentinian war cry Las Malvinas son Argentinas (the Falklands are Argentinian) has resurfaced in graffiti and posters round Buenos Aires. The Malvinas are a matter of wounded pride, not over the calamitous end of the war, which is universally dismissed as the last lunatic act of a floundering dictatorship, but over the original British occupation of the islands in 1833.
The president is not advocating another bout of war but has ordered his country’s diplomats to pursue the policy more aggressively. The Argentinian foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, met Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, in New York on June 14 to ask him to intervene to persuade UK to set out the government’s position clearly in a long statement on June 14 to a special UN committee on independence from colonialism.
He claimed the Malvinas had been inhabited by Argentinian settlers until they were replaced in 1833 by force with a population of British origin.
He said Argentina had continued to seek an atmosphere favourable to the resumption of negotiations with Britain over sovereignty but had been rebuffed. Last year alone, he said, Argentina had submitted 15 notes of protest to the UK rejecting what it described as illegitimate acts in the Malvinas, including surveying for hydrocarbons and the granting of licences for the exploration and exploitation of minerals.
“These British unilateral acts also refer to the continued presence and recent upgrading of the British military base in the Malvinas islands, whose operating capacity extends beyond the area illegitimately occupied by the UK,” he said.
He blamed Britain for the failure to establish direct scheduled air services between the island and the Argentinian mainland, saying Buenos Aires was still awaiting a reply to an Argentinian proposal suggested three years ago.
The most-recent point of contention is a British unilateral decision, in an apparent contravention of a joint agreement on conservation of fishing stocks, to extend fishing licences from one year to 25, he said.
Nicholas Winterton, the Conservative chairperson of the all-party parliamentary group on the Falklands, who attended the Lincoln’s Inn reception, is unimpressed by the new Argentinian push. “Argentina got a bloody nose 25 years ago and similarly I would advise them not to try again,” he said.
The UK deploys 1Â 200 military personnel to protect the estimated 2Â 600 islanders, at a cost of Â£110-million a year. Is it worth it?
Mr Winterton said it was. He said that Argentina was historically wrong in claiming the Falklands, the islanders had a right to decide their own future, the islands were important strategically, standing at the gateway to Antarctica and Britain owed them a debt for their participation in both world wars.
“This outweighs the cost,” he said.
The Foreign Office concurs. A spokesperson said: “The UK will not negotiate on sovereignty unless and until the islanders wish it.”
And the Kelpers, as the islanders are often known, do not wish it. Robert Rowlands, who lives in the Falklands capital Port Stanley, said discussion of sovereignty will happen “only when the islanders are ready” and that would be “never”.
The islanders said they were unconcerned about the political moves in Argentina. Sue Buckett (49), whose family settled in the Falklands in 1833, said: “We’ve been hearing these sorts of noises since I was a child.”
They complain about bullying tactics by Argentina. Jan Cheek, a fishing company owner whose squid trawler was detained earlier this year after allegedly entering Argentinian waters, said: “We’d be happy to have neighbourly relations, but their claims get in the way of that.”
Argentinian government officials dismiss the UK government’s claim that Kirchner is using the Malvinas to win re-election, insisting it has been on his agenda before and since the last election.
The Falklands have prospered since 1982, with islanders enjoying the highest per-capita income in South America.
Fish stocks are overseen by the South Atlantic Fisheries commission, set up by UK and Argentina in 1990. Wool continues to provide a livelihood for some islanders. Preliminary exploration in the North Falkland Basin is also raising interest in the islands’ potential as a source of oil
While the territories continue to be administered by a governor appointed by the Queen, a new Constitution in 1985 established an executive council consisting of eight elected officials.—Guardian Unlimited Â