The Falklands, Always Contested, Inspire Fresh English-Argentine Squabble

The Argentines, still smarting over the last war, continue to covet the British-held islands.

With 3,300 inhabitants and 600,000 sheep, the Falkland Islands are hardly vital to geopolitical stability. The cluster of 770 islands lying 300 miles off South America once served as a stopover for whale and seal hunters. Today it’s a windblown empire of sheep and kelp, the oversize seaweed that islanders harvest to feed their herds. But in war and diplomacy, appearances are deceptive.

True, the islands’ population is practically stagnant. Total GDP is a trifling $170 million. And despite enticing reports from oil prospectors, not a single barrel of crude has yet been extracted from their frigid waters. Acre for acre, however, no real estate in the Western Hemisphere has been as explosive as this rocky patch in the South Atlantic, where disputing claims brought Argentina and Britain to war three decades ago and have strained relations between the two nations ever since.

And lest anyone forget, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s speech broadcast yesterday (Feb. 7) from Buenos Aires, but intended for a global audience, was an unsubtle reminder. On a roll after her reelection last year, and with the 30th anniversary of the war looming on April 2, Kirchner has parlayed her renewed political capital into a fresh bid for control of the islands her compatriots call Las Malvinas. Vowing to press Argentina’s case before the United Nations, she accused the British of “militarizing the South Atlantic.”

Her words were a barb at the Royal Navy, which has ordered the HMS Dauntless, the Navy’s most powerful warship, and a nuclear submarine to head to the Falklands. Royal Air Force helicopter pilot Prince William, second in line to the British crown, arrived in Port Stanley last week, an “entirely routine” deployment, according to London, that Buenos Aires read as a naked provocation. “Give peace a chance,” Kirchner admonished U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, becoming perhaps the first head of state to press John Lennon into service to flag and country.

Behind the verbal sparring, memories of the 1982 invasion by Argentine troops, which left some 900 dead (including 650 Argentines) in a 10-week battle, are unhealed wounds on both sides of the Atlantic. The sting is especially sharp for Argentines, many of whom have never relinquished the thought of redeeming their humiliation at the hands of gringos. “Stupidity!” thundered Kirchner in a stump speech last year. “In the 21st century, Britain continues to be a blunt and decadent colonial power, for colonialism is out of season as well as unjust.”

International jurists may never settle the matter of who has rightful claim to the Falklands. The first Argentine community was established on the western island around 1829. The British followed, settling in East Falklands in 1833 and then taking over Western Falklands after the Argentines decamped in 1869. For more than a century the islanders lived and worked in peace, and well into the 1970s both London and Buenos Aires were weighing proposals for dual citizenship and joint stewardship of the islands. Islanders still recall the charm offensive by Argentine Foreign Minister Guido di Tella, who in the '90s famously wooed the Falklanders by sending them Christmas cards and gift copies of Winnie-the-Pooh and the animated children’s video Pingu. Despite the official “seduction,” as Argentines called the policy, the island natives speak the King’s English, revel at Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, and consider themselves culturally as Brits.

Seduction was the last thing on the mind of the Argentine dictators (1976 to 1983) who never swallowed the idea of the Union Jack flying over Las Malvinas, and who launched an outright invasion in April 1982. Their crushing defeat hastened the end of one of the continent’s bloodiest dictatorships. Now, with the 30th anniversary of the war approaching, the Kirchner government has disinterred the casus belli, hoping to convert yesterday’s political disaster into a diplomatic triumph.

Fueled by her victory at the polls and having survived a dramatic brush with thyroid cancer (which proved benign), Kirchner has exhorted her compatriots once again to reject the British invaders and has effectively lobbied her allies and neighbors for support. Though she failed to persuade Chile to suspend direct flights to the islands, she recently persuaded all major Latin American nations to restate their endorsement of Buenos Aires’s position that “Las Malvinas son Argentinas.” Late last year, the nations of the Mercosur trading bloc (Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina) agreed to close their ports to fishing ships flying the Falklands flag. Critically, and much to London’s dismay, Kirchner also wrested an important disclaimer from Washington, where a State Department spokesman said: “We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands but take no position regarding sovereignty.”

No one expects another shooting war to break out in the South Atlantic, which would threaten countless lives and put even the powerful U.K. Army under severe strain. But to embattled leaders on both sides of the fray a display of bravado may be worth more than outright battle. To Britain, battered by Euro-sclerosis abroad, deep unemployment at home, and a Scottish rebellion, the rescue of the kelpers half a world away remains an untarnished source of national pride. Little wonder that British moviegoers have cheered the scene in The Iron Lady where Meryl Streep, in the role of Margaret Thatcher, tersely commands her generals to sink the Argentine warship Belgrano.

For Argentina’s political class, a second chance to thrash the gringo empire is a welcome distraction from troubles at home. The economy is slowing fast, forcing the government to slash entitlements and popular consumer subsidies. Consumer prices are rising at more than 20 percent a year, the second worst rate in the continent, after Venezuela. Yet the government admits to less than half that number and is prosecuting journalists and independent economists who report otherwise.

So discredited is the bookkeeping that the International Monetary Fund has just told the government to improve the quality of its data. Whether Buenos Aires heard over all the rattling sabers is an open question.