I lived in England during the Falklands War. I recall the Argentinians starting it and the British finishing it. Before the events of 1982 I would have struggled to pinpoint the islands on a map. After the events of 1982 everyone who read the British press, while sat in a British home, knew where the Union flag was fluttering. It was, and still is, fluttering over British Territories in the Southern Oceans.
I left England in 1986 and went to live in Australia. The matter has not resurfaced for me since that date. In Argentina, the issue of sovereignty came up more than I had expected, my expectation being not at all. We saw many reminders:
Buenos Aires. This is in the entrance lobby of the Presidential palace.
Similarly this was in the back courtyard of the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires. Both of these looked to be of recent construction.
Just around the corner from Casa Rosa on way to San Telmo in BA was a square dedicated to the heroes of the Malvinas.
There are squares and monuments built with this common theme as we journeyed south. There is a coin minted that circulates in Argentina with similar embossed sentiment. In 2009 (I think) Argentina altered its constitution to recognise its claims to the Islands.
If you fly into the southern most city of Ushuaia, which is closest to the Islands, you arrive at Malvinas airport. There are more monuments close to the docks that look to have been erected for the 30th anniversary, that is in 2012.
An eternal flame, 30th anniversary and 649 names inscribed on the wall behind which I assume to be the Argentinians who died in the conflict.
Entrance to the Docks at Ushuaia..
At the tourist information office at Ushuaia there is display stand along one wall filled with helpful brochures.
Inside the informative brochure.
I read the brochure provided by the Tourist Information Office in Ushuaia. I also did some quick searches of the Internet.
The Argentinian claim to the Malvinas is very succinctly set out in their brochure:
1. The Islands are close to Argentina and a long way away from Great Britain.
2. The islands were occupied by Argentina until 1833 when Britain expelled the Argentine dwellers.
I did not find a similarly neat British brochure. I think the British rebuttals to 1 and 2 above, go like this:
1. Yes the Falklands are close to Argentina, that is a fact. But not one that is relevant. If it were relevant, the Faroe Islands would be British and the Channel Islands would be French. They are not.
2. The second claim causes a review of history that is less clear than suggested by the brochure taken from tourist information.
The British may say that they landed upon the islands a long time before Argentina, in fact, in 1690 when Captain John Strong landed and the name Falkland was applied. Falkland was the First Lord of the British Admiralty in 1690.
The period of occupation claimed by the Argentines is from around 1829 to 1833. The islands housed British settlements for a long time before 1829. Similarly, the islands housed French settlements for many years before 1829. I have read an article suggesting that Argentina asked British permission for their settlement of 1829 to 1833. I have read that in 1829 to 1833 Argentina was in a state of civil war and Buenos Aires did not control these lands to the south and they were not recognised as part of Argentina by……the British and many others who were living there. I have read that the Argentine “dwellers” were a penal colony who rebelled and killed five of the leaders of the community, thereby expressing anti Argentinian preferences. Some of what I have read may be incorrect. It does suggest that the history of ownership is quite complicated and a legitimate owner on the basis of “we were here first” is not clear.
It does not seem to be disputed that the British have settled the islands and that settlement has been uninterrupted from 1833 to today. The British settlement has been far larger in numbers and far longer in duration than that referred in the Argentine claim.
As presented by a Chilean tour guide who was explaining Chile’s political history to her tour group. I was sat within earshot and this is what I heard…… Galtieri (who was the leader of Argentina at the time) was in trouble politically and economically and launched the war as a distraction. He lost, and this was terminal for his administration. She considered his loss delivered some good to Argentina as an elected government followed the military Junta of Galtieri.
Chile supported Britain during the Falklands war. They did this because Argentina has a very similar claim against Chile, concerning three small desolate islands in the South. The Chilean guide indicated the Argentine claims are designed to support a claim to Antarctic territories. Argentina had been threatening war against Chile in respect of its territorial ambitions, hence the Chilean support for Britain.
There are parts of the Antarctic that are today inscribed as “Argentinian” Antarctic on Argentinian maps. These same pieces of territory are described as “Chilean” Antarctic on Chilean maps.
The British claim.
1. I assume it to be the view of Britain that the people of the Falklands have the right to determine their own future. In support of this position, a referendum was held in the Falklands in 2013. Voter turnout was 91.94% and they voted for the Falkland Islands to remain an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. This vote was 99.8%, in favour, only three people voted against.
That is quite an extraordinarily turnout and an astonishingly consistent voting pattern seldom found in a democracy.
The Argentine counterclaim is that the Islanders do not qualify as a people who are able to exercise self determination. The British may claim they are a people, distinct from their geographic neighbours, in language, religion, history, democratic traditions, food, culture and possibly more.
In my most recent visits to England the Falklands was not high profile. I note that David Cameron met Barack Obama and the Falklands was pre-agreed as off the agenda. I found a British press article that suggested Argentina were trying to rent twelve long range bombers from Russia. The same article said a British gun boat had been sent to the Falklands for manoeuvres.
I read similar articles in Argentine press and British press concerning the search for oil by the British in this area. The article I read in the Argentine press suggested that many holes had been drilled, that no oil had been found, and that the companies involved had given up and gone home. The article I read in the Financial Times concerned a company called Premier Oil who were seeking $2 billion dollars to start a commercial project that would extract Falklands oil. The CEO was indicating in his press release that oil was commercial to extract at prices over USD 80 a barrel. Those are two articles at 180 degrees variant.
Overall, fewer reminders in Britain than I saw in Argentina.
Where to next?
The Argentine brochure states ” The 1982 conflict did not alter the nature of the sovereignty dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom…..”
That is true. The “conflict” referred was an Argentine military invasion. The dispute may not have altered as a consequence of the “conflict” but it appears, to me, that the probability of a speedy resolution (that Argentina may find satisfactory) has altered. As a consequence of the Argentine invasion it seems, to me, that any British Government that gave ground to Argentina would find itself unelectable. Politicians have a clear understanding of unelectable.
I therefore assume there is no British Governmental appetite, at this time, to negotiate any meaningful changes to the status quo. Which means that my lengthy explanation of claim and counter claim earlier in this blog, doesn’t really matter.
My view is that two more British generations will need to be born and grow old and absorb a different reflection of Argentinian claims before those claims could be considered/discussed. That’s sixty more years for Argentina to sit still and reflect that a military invasion may have been a poor quality decision with decades of reverberations.
Would Argentina Invade again ?
I cannot claim any insight. There is more chest beating and flag flying from the Argentine government than I had expected to see and I assume that has popular appeal with the domestic audience. “We’ll be back” is inscribed large and in rock on one of the monuments I saw in Ushuaia. Whether this is a precursor to further action or a substitute for further action, I have no idea. When I was in Brazil a Brazilian described how he and his countrymen perceived Argentinians. He described Argentinians as consistently long on talk and short on delivery. Maybe there is an element of this in what we saw in this context.
The price of the 1982 war was high for Agentina, in lives lost and money spent. For the Argentine Government of the time, the outcome was terminal. Conversely, for Margaret Thatcher it secured her next term in government when that was looking otherwise unlikely.
The 1982 military invasion occurred at a time of economic difficulties for Argentina with a dictatorship that was unpopular. Currently, Argentina has inflation of 43% per annum, dwindling foreign reserves and currency controls that have created a thriving black (blue) market for hard currencies. The countries current leader, Cristina Kirchner, seems to have a scandal at her door. A public prosecutor was shot dead hours before he was due to present testimony against her involvement in the cover up of a bombing that killed many.
Nationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel (Dr Johnson; who never resided in the Falklands). A leader who is in economic and political difficulty may see an invasion as a last desperate roll of the dice.
Argentina is currently a “democracy”, I use the rabbit ears because things seem to happen in Argentina that would not be expected in democracies, no rabbits ears. A “democracy” may be a more effective construct to prevent a repetition of military aggression than a dictatorship. But Argentina has a history of being both.
I felt reasonably optimistic that the tourist information office in Ushuaia shares brochures in moderate language explaining its case. I felt reasonably positive that no one raised the matter with me while I was there. I imagine this could change quite quickly.