The statement by Argentina president Cristina Kirchner that her country will lodge an official complaint with the United Nations Security council over what she calls Britain’s “militarisation of the South Atlantic” is so breathtaking in irony and arrogance that it simply cannot be ignored.
Her words have been uttered in response to news that the UK is sending a warship to patrol the waters around the Falkand Islands, a practice that has been in effect ever since the war over the sovereignty of the sub-antarctic archipelago in 1982. Granted, the ship being sent to the area is the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Dauntless, and it arrives as Prince William begins his six-week posting in the Falklands but it hardly constitutes “militarisation”.
Indeed, the recent escalation in tensions between the two countries has been entirely of Argentina’s making and any aggression has stemmed from Kirchner’s policies rather than those of the British government. Argentina has convinced its fellow members of the Mercosur trading bloc – Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay – not to allow any ships flying the Falklands flag to enter their ports. With the inhabitants of the islands largely dependent on imported goods for their survival this strikes a remarkable, if passive, resemblance to a blockade – an act that is generally perceived as an act of war. To compound this, the Argentina fisheries department recently decided to flout conservation laws in order to begin the season early for the catching of Illex squid, a breed that travel from the River Plate that separates Argentina from Uruguay to the waters of the Falklands. The squid constitute a a vital part of the Islands’ economy.
Kirchner would have you believe that her desire to annex the Falkland Islands is a moral imperative for her country. Interesting then, that she only started to get actively involved in the issue when it became clear that the UK were probing for reserves of gas and oil in the region. Greed disguised as morality, sound familiar? Leaving out any opinions on the motives behind the Iraq War for the benefit of brevity (and for fear of drifting off the subject), General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Islands in 1982 in a last ditch attempt to cling on to power as leader of the deeply unpopular military junta. His attempts proved to be ultimately futile as he deployed unenthusiastic teenage conscripts to fight his war for him and they proved to be no match for British forces. Nevertheless, he did succeed in whipping up nationalistic fervour over the issue, a ferment that survives to this day.
The Falkland Islands have been under total British control since 1833. Prior to then they had flitted between nominal British and Spanish control and were in the possession of the former at the time of the declaration of independence of Argentina in 1816. The first visitors from the newly-established nation arrived with permission from the British Consul, making all subsequent claims on the land tenuous to say the least, assuming precedence is the arbiter in such matters.
For almost a century and a half after these events, the issue of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands was little more than a footnote in history until a desperate dictator embarked on an ill-fated military expedition. Any assertions about ‘Las Islas Malvinas’ (Argentina’s name for the territory) being the birthright of all Argentines – as Kirchner and her cronies would have you believe – is a modern affectation and not one felt by her forebears.
Sadly, these antagonistic sentiments come as little surprise to me. Four years ago I spent two months in Argentina and totally fell in love with the place. It is a country of staggeringly contrasting beauty, featuring deserts and glaciers, mountains and jungle. The steak is sensational and the people are friendly, engaging and they absolutely adore their football – always a plus point. It is no exaggeration to say that the time I spent there was the most enjoyable and memorable time of my entire life and I would jump at the chance of returning if ever given the opportunity.
However, the issue of ‘Las Malvinas’ was never far away. The inflammatory graffiti daubed across the Plaza Fuerza Aerea Argentina (formerly the Plaza Britannica but renamed in honour of the Argentine Air Force – a replica of Big Ben that stands in the centre of Buenos Aires and given as a gift from Britain to mark a century of the country’s independence in 1916) were the first signs of ill-feeling that I noticed. Passions ran much higher further south and a conversation with an eloquent yet ardent member of the Argentine Navy in a bar in Ushuaia – the southern-most city in the world and a base for the 1982 conflict – revealed that any opinion that the Islands could belong to anyone other than Argentina was flatly rejected irrespective of the fact that 90% of the inhabitants (according to the 2006 census) are British and that they want to remain a dependency of the UK. No alternative was even considered, let alone debated.
But the most depressing element of this was the memorial in Ushuaia to those lost in 1982 (see title picture). A striking stone monument with the outline of the disputed territory cut out of the rock, any attempt to truly honour the dead is undone by the rhetoric of the inscription below it.
It reads: “The people of Ushuaia who, with their blood, irrigated the roots of our sovereignty over Las Malvinas. We will return!!!” (The exclamations marks really are there, they are not an embellishment on my part).
For me, and any right minded person, a war memorial should project solemnity and humility. It should not glory in bloodshed, it should not advocate revenge. It should merely be.
With such warmongering icons adorning Argentina’s cities, it is unsurprising that young Argentines grow up with such an unshakeable attitude to the issue. Let’s hope it doesn’t cause yet more young lives to be lost in order to settle the debate once and for all.