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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

Falklands, Argentina stuck in icy political impasse

September 26, 2005

By Mary Milliken

STANLEY, Falkland Islands (Reuters) – The Argentine cemetery for soldiers who died on the Falkland Islands in the 1982 conflict with Britain is a desolate place, where freezing rain cracks the paint and thrashes the plastic rosaries on rows of white crosses.

It is a poignant reminder of how little Argentina has to its name in these South Atlantic islands and how much it lost in trying to take them by force from a tiny population that wanted to remain British.

And yet, 23 years after losing the 74-day war to Britain, Argentina forges ahead with its claim to the islands with a new, tougher approach. Argentine-Falkland relations today are about as icy as the waters that separate the two by 400 miles

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Falkland politicians blame Nestor Kirchner, the popular Argentine president who hails from the Patagonian province closest to the islands that the Argentines call the Malvinas.

They say that in his 30 months in office he has gone out of his way to torpedo the pillars of the thriving local economy — fishing and tourism — to push the Falklands to the negotiating table to discuss Argentina’s territorial claims.

“What the Kirchner government has done is destroy the vestiges of trust between Falkland islanders and Argentina,” said Mike Summers, member of the legislative council that governs the 2,900 people in the British overseas territory in conjunction with a London-appointed governor.

“Falkland islanders believe Argentine society would support the Kirchner government’s approach to the Falklands issue. For that reason they will not trust any Argentine.”

CAN’T AGREE TO DISAGREE

The Falklands conflict resounded far beyond the islands in mid-1982 when world powers including the United States scrambled to avert war. It turned out to be not only the first invasion of a British territory since World War Two but also the sole example of a major naval and amphibious operation between modern forces since that time.

Some 900 people were killed in the conflict including 650 Argentines.

Back in Argentina, many today condemn the invasion ordered by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri to shore up a discredited military dictatorship, but few question the right over territory inherited from the Spanish crown and taken by the British in 1833.

Argentine children are still taught in school that “the Malvinas are ours,” they call Stanley “Puerto Argentino” and a telephone call to the Falklands is charged at a domestic rate.

A monument in downtown Buenos Aires honors the 650 war dead with a military guard directly in front of the century-old Tower of the English.

In the Falklands, the topography is similar to Argentina’s Patagonia and some vestiges remain of migration between the two in the 100 or so years before the war. But the way of life is utterly British, down to the pubs, darts and ubiquitous tea.

“My family has lived here for eight generations,” said Falklands councilor Jan Cheek. “Compare that with recent Argentine presidents who are only second generation. I find their claim offensive.”

The local politicians look back on the ’90s with a certain nostalgia. During that period, Argentine President Carlos Menem’s foreign minister, the late Guido di Tella, sent cards and teddy bears to islanders to win hearts and minds, a strategy largely lampooned in Argentina today.

Kirchner’s approach appears to be “my way or the highway.” He wanted an Argentine flight to the Falklands and when he didn’t get it from the wary islanders, he canceled authorization for the charter flights over Argentine airspace.

That has left the Falklands tourism industry with just one regular commercial flight per week with the Chilean airline Lan, apart from the British Air Force flights, and there is no hope for a second flight in the medium term.

“They are putting pressure to engage in talks on (Argentine) sovereignty and that just won’t happen,” said Gov. Howard Pearce, who lives and works at the Government House that the Argentine forces occupied for the duration of the war.

“Argentina policymakers have to recognize that fact. They should agree to disagree and concentrate on how to work sensibly as good neighbors.”

‘NOT IN MY LIFETIME’

The Argentine Foreign Ministry’s director for the Malvinas and South Atlantic plays down suggestions that this government is more hard-line but says it is very focused on the goal of gaining sovereignty over the islands.

“For this government, the essence is in the existence of sovereignty, and this needs to be resolved diplomatically as the General Assembly of the United Nations has determined,” said Eduardo Airaldi, a career diplomat who has never been to the Falklands.

Indeed, no one in Argentina dares mention military intervention when talking about the Malvinas today. But Britain maintains an estimated 2,000 troops — a so-called “credible deterrent” — at the Mount Pleasant base built after the war.

The annual defense cost of some 110 million pounds to British taxpayers may be a drop in the U.K. budget, and it is the only subsidy Britain pays to the otherwise self-financing islands. But it is more than the 70-million-pound local economy and works out to around 38,000 pounds per inhabitant per year.

Gov. Pearce says most people on the islands don’t believe Argentine military intervention is possible, but the 8,000-miles (13,000-km) distance from Britain, Argentina’s campaign to regain the islands and recent Argentine history are reasons to maintain the status quo.

“There is no guarantee there won’t be a return to military government” in Argentina, Pearce said.

The war — or the “conflict” as the islanders call it because there was neither ultimatum nor declaration of war by Argentina — looms large, especially in local politics.

Few civilians were killed and Argentina is proud of its benevolent treatment of islanders during the war. But fierce battles raged on the islanders’ doorstep and they saw 255 British soldiers die to defend their way of life.

There are some signs, however, that the ordinary people are putting the conflict behind them. Falkland Islanders now travel to Buenos Aires for bargain shopping after Argentina’s economic collapse and devaluation in 2001, while those in the island tourist trade have no qualms about Argentine visitors.

But even those who have managed to move on don’t expect any break in the stalemate.

“I think we will become good neighbors, but it probably won’t be in my lifetime,” said Adrian Lowe, 49, a farmer who came from England to the islands as a teen-ager. “It will be up to younger generations.”