Diplomatic Pouch / April 3, 2012
By Larry Luxner
Today marks the 30th anniversary of what many historians call the most senseless, ridiculous war in modern times.
On Apr. 2, 1982, Argentine forces invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands — a remote British colony a little over one-third the size of Maryland but with barely 3,000 inhabitants. The 74-day conflict killed 649 Argentines and took 258 British lives, three of them civilians. In the end, Argentina’s military dictatorship lost the war and was overthrown soon after, paving the way for democracy.
Yet the people of Argentina have never given up their historical claim over the Falklands — which they call the Malvinas — and tensions over the islands appear to be heating up all over again.
Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in a recent speech, denounced London’s “latest remilitarization of the South Atlantic” — a reference to Britain’s deployment of the $1.5 billion HMS Dauntless destroyer — and threatened to suspend biweekly air travel to the archipelago from Chile if Britain refused to enter talks about the Falklands’ political future.
Recently, two British cruise ships were turned away from Argentina in protest, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — always eager to thrust himself into the spotlight, despite his struggle with cancer— said he’d provide Argentina with military support in the event of renewed hostilities.
Jorge Argüello, Argentina’s new ambassador to the United States and its former envoy to the United Nations, has been raising this issue for years, yet he declined our repeated requests for an interview. We’re still not sure why.
“Ambassador Argüello argued Argentina’s case when he was at the UN,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of Inter-American Dialogue. “He’s a political figure, not a career diplomat. Now that he’s in Washington, he’s been arguing it again.”
Few observers we talked to seem to take Argentina’s rants seriously, though Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, says Buenos Aires is going about this whole thing the wrong way.
“There’s always an element of wanting to stoke national fervor,” he told the Diplomatic Pouch. “It’s ironic because 30 years ago, it was done by a military government that engaged in human rights violations, including repressing members of Cristina Fernández’s current government. And now they’re engaged in the same policy that was conducted by their very enemies.”
Less important, he said, is what the islanders themselves want — which is to remain staunchly an English-speaking, British territory that proudly flies the Union Jack.
Few of them seem to be complaining about the status quo; thanks to a booming economy based on squid fishing licenses, cruise-ship tourism, sheep farming and subsidies from London, annual per-capita income in the Falklands exceeds $35,000 a year — making it the wealthiest jurisdiction in South America.
And the likelihood of massive offshore petroleum deposits under the seabed surrounding the Falklands makes the twin-island colony even more lucrative.
“Morgan Stanley has ranked the Falklands region, which could potentially contain 8.3 billion barrels of oil, as one of the top 15 offshore prospects of 2012, though later estimates have tempered these high expectations,” says a Feb. 14 report by Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). “Despite some continued claims of lucrative possibilities, larger oil companies so far tread a fine line, making certain that they do not get involved in the political dispute at hand, thus stalling any momentum forward as talks are carried on behind the scenes.”
Even so, says Hakim, it’s hard to believe in this day and age that Argentina would invade the Falklands again.
“But it was hard to believe they invaded it the first time,” he quipped. “I don’t think they have the capacity now to do very much. There’s an eerie parallel in the sense that [in 1982], the military saw their authority slipping away very rapidly, the country was in the midst of an economic crisis, and that’s when they decided to launch this.”
Ironically, the Inter-American Dialogue itself is largely a byproduct of the Falklands War and the breakdown in talks that led to the conflict in the first place.
“Cristina is entering into a period of economic difficulties, her own public support has been dropping, there’s all kinds of squabbles with different countries including the U.S., Brazil, Spain and Poland, and all this is a useful diversion,” said Hakim, whose think tank celebrates its 30th anniversary on June 7. “At the same time, it’s also a useful diversion for the Cameron government in Britain, which is having its own economic problems.”
While it’s hard to predict what might happen, says Hakim, there’s little doubt that Argentina is leaning hard on its Latin American allies to support its claims of sovereignty over the Falklands, which date back to historical maps of the early 1800s.
“The U.S. has said it would like to see negotiations, the Brits say it’s unnecessary and that it’s up to the Falklanders themselves — but the U.S. is supporting more the Argentine position than the British.
Unfortunately, he said, both sides have managed the dispute very poorly.
“If the Argentines really wanted to establish sovereignty over the Falklands, they should have begun seducing the Falklanders by encouraging young people to study in Argentina, make fellowships available, subsidize tourism from the Falklands and make them feel at home in Argentina,” said Hakim. “Young people would begin to see Argentina as a very attractive place for a second residence.”
And the British are equally foolish, he said, for refusing to negotiate. “That’s the way to settle this,” he said. “It’s not all or nothing.”
Janie Hulse, a Buenos Aires-based Latin America analyst who focuses on strategic issues, says the Falklands/Malvinas dispute is the one foreign policy issue Argentina really cares about — and that the government’s claim over the islands has been upheld by every administration since 1982, with varying degrees of seriousness.
“It’s really not the islands themselves, but their location in the South Atlantic that makes them a key strategic issue — one that Argentina is increasingly pursuing,” she said, “especially after Brazil found major deep-sea oil deposits.”
Sabatini says it’s extremely unlikely that Argentina’s neighbors will provide more than lip service in the event of another war.
“Argentina and Chile have had their own border disputes. The Beagle Channel dispute was resolved diplomatically and quietly at the table. There’s no reason why Chile would endorse another method to resolve the Falklands issue,” he said. “It was the same with Uruguay and its recent dispute with Argentina over pulp mills. That was resolved not by grandstanding and pounding at the table, but through quiet diplomacy and the work of honest brokers on the outside.”
The COHA report concludes that, despite the hype, a Second Falklands War is definitely not in the cards.
“One reality remains clear: Britain and Argentina are not going back to war and they both know it,” it says. “Both militaries have been substantially downsized over the last few decades. What we may be seeing here are tactical shifts reflecting the profound changes in Argentine foreign and economic policy since the 1990s. These tactics are designed to isolate Britain in regional circles as well as in public and international opinion, [yet] British political circles are convinced that there are diplomatic victories to be best harvested through skillful workings of the issue, and little to lose.”