War Games

The Never-Ending Falklands War: In Buenos Aires, A Museum’s Selective History

A museum in Buenos Aires has opened, remembering the Falklands War. Unsurprisingly, it is an exercise in political propaganda, with Argentina’s desire to reclaim the British territory at its heart.

Jockel Fink/AP

“Las Malvinas son nuestras”—The Malvinas are ours.

It’s a call from the heart one hears throughout Argentina.

But the islands in the South Atlantic are not Argentina’s. The Falkland Islands—as their English name goes—remain a far-flung British territory, the subject of a 1982 bloody two-month war between Britain and Argentina (which was then a military dictatorship). The British, led by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, won the war: the islands stayed British.

Nearly 1,000 died between both sides. About 700 fatalities were Argentine, many barely trained teenage soldiers and sailors, including nearly 300 who drowned from the controversial sinking of the Argentine warship, the Belgrano.

This windswept sheep-filled archipelago off the coast of Southern Patagonia remains an Argentine obsession. In April, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina’s President who constantly invokes the islands as Argentinean, launched a new 50 peso banknote featuring Antonio Rivero, a gaucho who led an 1833 uprising against the British: “This is a homage to our Islas Malvinas and to all those who gave their lives to this cause.
 It will compel every Argentinian to keep alive on a daily basis the flames of love for our islands which are and always will be Argentinian.”

Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires has several monuments to the islands, including the main one, a Vietnam memorial style wall listing the names of hundreds of war dead.

Adding to the Buenos Aires’ memorials is the new Museo Malvinas e Islas del Atlántico Sur, opened on June 10 of this year, just shy of the June 14 anniversary of the war’s end.

The museum’s curator is Gabriel Miremont, known for designing several Argentine museums, including the Museo Evita in Buenos Aires’ Palermo neighborhood.

The Malvinas Museum is spacious, white, luminescent. Its courtyard contains a pool with a map of the islands, an aged iron model of the Belgrano hovers nearby, a giant Argentine flag billowing above. This airy, modern building stands in contradiction to its setting: the grounds of ESMA—La Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, or Argentina’s Navy School of Mechanics.

Leafy and tranquil with its oak filled plazas and 1920’s Spanish mission architecture, one might almost mistake it for a northern California college campus. However, this was among the most notorious torture and prison centers under the 1976 to 1982 U.S supported military regime (under General Galtieri) whose leaders invaded the Islands. The war’s disastrous end brought the dictatorship’s collapse, ushering in democracy.

Museum Director Jorge Giles, who was himself imprisoned and tortured during the military regime, explained that ESMA has been “redesignated as a space to remember the victims of terror, a place to remember.” He says Kirchner decided to have the museum for the Malvinas “because the President took the firm decision to repair the errors that led to war.” The displays are heavily freighted towards the Argentinean viewpoint that the “Malvinas” are theirs: a dramatic video presents the British Empire as particularly violent. Even the Queen isn’t spared: her image on a 1988 Commonwealth coin is drenched in blood.

Giles feels it is important for visitors—both Argentine and foreign—to understand the war was launched by an illegitimate military regime, where even soldiers were victims. The museum he said hopes to “redesignate those who served in the Malvinas, that they were also victims of the dictatorship, even though they fought with bravery for their country.”

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Miremont said the museum also “chooses to show other aspects of the Islands, such as flora, fauna, geography and history of the place which can generate another approach to a timely topic for our recent history.”

To that end, the museum contains many displays examining the natural history of the Islands, complete with a discussion of native animals, plants and geology. Information is conveyed as still-lifes and montages, plaques, and videos. Guides teach visitors about the English word kelp, the seaweed that surrounds the islands, and how the Islanders refer to themselves as “Kelpers” because of it.

Other displays restate the Argentinean view that it is inappropriate it is that the United Kingdom has possession of land, close to Argentina. These include a map of the Atlantic with distances between the U.K. and the Islands compared to Buenos Aires, 12,686 kilometers (7,882 miles) and 1,800 kilometers (1,112 miles) respectively. There is also a night sky map series, showing stars over London, Buenos Aires and the Malvinas, where the last two are almost identical. Extrapolating the thought behind these displays might mean the United States should relinquish Guam and Hawaii, far as they are from Washington D.C.

In theory, the Islands were part of the land given to Argentina by Spain upon independence in 1816. Louis Vernet, German-born of French descent, created a permanent settlement, with both British and Argentine approval in the 1820s. Some nations believed no one should be in charge, the opinion of an upstart United States, which destroyed Port Louis in 1831 to maintain whaling interests off the Islands’ waters. (Ironically, in 1982, Britain felt America, its closest ally, didn’t offer it substantial enough support over the Falklands; it was later revealed a proposed US compromise favored the Argentineans.)

Rivero, now celebrated on Argentinean banknotes, remained on the Islands, fighting against the British. Following this, Argentina settled sparsely populated Patagonia to prevent the Crown from claiming any part of the mainland. There had been British governmental discussions that the islands could be leased back to Argentina. In 1965 United Nations Resolution 2065 called for the two countries to settle the Islands’ sovereignty.

Today, the Falkland Islanders themselves, resoundingly, want to stay British. In a World Cup warm-up game, the players held up a banner saying the islands were Argentinean. In the museum there is a poignant photograph of one of the Madres (de Plaza de Mayo)—mothers of those killed by, or who disappeared under, the military dictatorship—holding a note proclaiming the Malvinas Argentine, even as she protests.

Another case contains a 1980s Gente, or People, magazine, a little boy on the cover asking what happened to the chocolate he sent to soldiers. Here you’ll also find soldiers’ uniforms and salvaged pieces of the Belgrano, like a giant radar unit and a deteriorating lifesaver. Argentines feel that the military government was not legitimate, and therefore, modern, democratic Argentina shouldn’t be considered responsible for its actions.

Giles hopes the museum can help foreigners better understand this Argentine position. “We want to help them, and to insist to the British what we feel about the place. This is a museum of peace,” he said, adding, “peace with a deep conviction.” That sounds edifying—whatever it means—but it goes directly against his President’s relentlessly stated insistence that the islands belong to Argentina, and that one day they will be Argentina’s again.

The islanders themselves don’t want to be ruled by Argentina, and so if Argentina ever again made any move to legitimize its claim, surely it would lead to another conflict. The museum’s bias is evident again in a display which shows that all Argentinean parties, of differing political complexions, consider the Falklands to be Argentinean.

The tagline for the Museum is “Paz, Memoria, y Sobernía”: Peace, Memory and Sovereignty. Yet what’s missing from the museum, especially in regards to sovereignty, is a view from the people who live on the Islands now, or indeed any British perspective on the war and the islands.

Jan Cheek, a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Stanley in the Falkland Islands, said, “The best way to increase understanding would be if the Argentine Government were prepared to talk to the Falkland Islands Government about co-operation on matters of mutual interest like conservation of fish stocks. This could begin the long slow process of building trust as neighbors.”

On the new museum, which she has not visited, Cheek said, “Given their uniquely distorted version of the history of the Falkland Islands it could be seen as provocative.”

An example of this is the prominence of objects like the Argentinean flag carried those who carried out the 1966 “Condor Operation,” in which a group of Argentineans landed a plane on Stanley race-course and raised the Argentinean flag there. “This appears to glorify a crime,” said Cheek, “as does the apparent emphasis on their illegal and ill-fated invasion.” The British Embassy in Buenos Aires declined to comment.

Miremont feels visitors should use the museum as a starting ground to form their own opinions, though he emphasized that as an Argentine project, it “was not primarily intended to measure the English-speaking public,” continuing, “The museum aims to disseminate the history, politics, geography and social implications the Malvinas have for us in Argentina first, and then for the general visitor.” The museum contains no placards in English, but does have English-speaking tour guides.

Calling the museum, “a kickoff to something bigger,” Miremont explained it was “essential to read, inquire, investigate, once you’ve found a topic of interest. I think this can happen to the English-speaker visiting this museum.”