I’ve had the title and outline of this blog posts saved in the drafts for several years now. It wasn’t that I was putting off writing it, it was simply that I was never really sure that I could do justice to the nuances of the subject matter. Now that we’ve been here for nearly 4 years and there’s been some recent developments, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. We need to talk about Argentina.
As a historian and a resident of the Falkland Islands, it is hard not to talk about the fractious relationship that this territory has with its nearest neighbour: in one way or another it explains so much about life here; from the very internet I’m using to the strength of the economy through to social attitudes and even the size of the population (affected, of course, by the significant military presence). It’s a LONG history and it has been recorded in depth by Roger Lorton in his lifetime’s work on the Falklands Timeline, but his summary can be found on the timeline’s website.
This week, President Macri of Argentina faced a shock defeat in the primary elections there, beaten into second place by the team of Alberto Fernández and former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (who, interestingly, has been facing significant corruption investigations but is immune from prison while she remains in government: handy that). This hasn’t been viewed overly positively on a global context and Argentina’s currency and economy instantly suffered drastic further problems following the results. It is also no surprise that the Falkland Islands Association felt the need to issue a statement in the light of the results. So, what’s the problem and where does it come from? Here is MY brief (as much as I could) guide to the Falklands/Argentina relationship, with my openly declared British/Falklands viewpoint (a quick search online will reveal a wealth of things that disagree with me, though the same would be true if I declared that the Earth is round and vaccines save lives).
It is well worth mentioning that the recent…difficulties…are a relatively modern invention. Behind the scenes of the initial claims and counter claims bouncing around the various governments in the complex early years of Falklands sovereignty, there was a much-needed strong economic and social relationship between Argentina and the Falklands. Archives tell us of a number of families and businesses that came from Argentina to the Falklands and vice versa. Many of the early South American settlers and farms have Falklands roots. Understandable; there was no indigenous population on the islands so friends and support had to come from other pioneers around you in such trying conditions. Argentina was, for a long time, referred to locally as simply ‘the Coast’ and there has always been a small Argentine contingent among the population here. Argentina has, after all, got the largest English speaking population outside of the Commonwealth.
The issues stem from 1833 and this is where, as I understand it, the two versions of history part ways and cause the current stalemate. Argentina established a prison colony on the Falklands (then claimed by Britain following its earlier establishment of a settlement there). Britain found out and removed the prisoners and soldiers guarding them. Britain’s version of the story is that they removed the Argentine garrison but allowed anyone else present to settle under the condition that they would be living under British rule. Britain then sent settlers to the islands to join those already there and they all lived happily ever after (besides a brief 74-day interlude in 1982). Argentina’s version of the story is that Britain illegally removed the entire Argentine population, stole the islands from them and ‘implanted’ a British population. This means that, 9-10 generations later, the Argentine government’s position is that the current population here do not count as ‘a people’ and are an illegally implanted one. Here, some might point out the fact that this is all being said in Spanish while the rights and lands of the native South American people are ridden roughshod over. This is, apparently, besides the point. So too is the fact that this all happened back in 1833.
Anyway, by the late 19th century, the matter is essentially settled and the British population on the islands continue to establish themselves. All goes quiet for quite some time. All until 1946. General Juan Peron was elected President in Argentina on a populist platform, but bearing many hallmarks of dictatorial rule (including organised violence and a liberal attitude towards the application of the law when it came to his competition). Having made little mention of the islands since the 19th century, Peron’s government renewed old claims about the territory and used this to both unite and distract from issues at home. A pattern that would be repeated with frequency for the rest of the century. Fortunately for Peron (and those who succeeded him), the government controlled the education system and had a sound propaganda machine so they were able to push the ‘stolen from us’ myth upon generations of Argentines. Without going into the details of Argentina’s colourful political history, what follows from 1946 until 1983 were a series of either military dictators or Peronist Presidents. This period has been most famously characterised by the “Dirty War” which saw tens of thousands of opponents of the government disappear amid stories of the disposing of prisoners on one-way flights over the Atlantic.
The outcome of all of this was that, from 1946 until December 1981 (when General Leopoldo Galtieri became the latest military dictator to take the top chair at the Argentine table), the people of Argentina had been subject to a program of state-controlled education and propaganda which insisted that the Falklands rightfully belonged to Argentina and had been occupied illegally by the British since 1833. In fact, the British had claimed the islands long before Argentina existed as a country, but that’s a story for another day.
Moving on from this, then, General Galtieri began his turn at violent military dictatorship by facing a dire economic situation at home. He really needed a cause that would unite and distract the people of Argentina. Something universally accepted by the people. Perhaps something they had been forcefully told for several decades. Luckily, at the same time, the British had recently been taking steps to indicate that they didn’t really want the hassle of the Falkland Islands (such as handing transport and fuel supplies on the Falklands over to Argentina). So, he gambled and invaded the Falklands in April 1982. He gambled on Thatcher not doing anything, he gambled on the UN not doing anything and he gambled on the USA not doing anything. He was wrong on all 3 counts and the rest, as they say, is history (see the tab at the top for the 1982 documentary).
Days after Argentina’s forceful ejection from the islands, Galtieri was deposed and Argentina suddenly became a democracy. As other certain countries are lately discovering, democracy is based on the will of the people. Never mind if that will has been dictated by clever lies, propaganda or the beliefs of others for far too long. Said the British guy. So Argentina is now democratic but, because of the preceding political history, no politician could ever hope to win an election by declaring anything other than the Argentine claim over the Falklands. That isn’t what the (majority of the) people believe and therefore that isn’t what will win votes. Tricky.
There was, inevitably, a period of cold relations between the two countries immediately post-conflict but by the 1990s, relations began to improve out of necessity (in spite of Argentina maintaining its claim to the islands and not apologising for its actions). I admit to finding it hard to fathom the continuing internal popularity of Argentina’s actions. An unpopular right-wing military dictator with a proven history of murdering his own citizens invades and occupies a peaceful neighbouring country and mass support for this action continues well beyond his lifetime. Parallels are not easy to find elsewhere in history. I had a fascinating discussion with an Argentine journalist last year and she admitted to not being able to explain it either: evidently the Falklands occupy a place in the Argentine national consciousness that stretches beyond my understanding. Tenth generation Falkland Islanders would argue that it stretches beyond logic or reason, too. There’s a reason why one of the first actions that all evil dictatorships (and Michael Gove) take is to attempt to control the state’s education: decades of it can yield results
This period of diplomatic warming (met by fierce and emotional resistance on both sides) did yield some progress: the reinstatement of the weekly flight between South America and the Falklands, for example. It was not to last, however. In 2003, Peronist Nestor Kirchner was elected as President and he was followed by his wife from 2007 until 2015 (nepotism: know your place).
Like their Peronist predecessors, Nestor and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK) were nothing short of fanatical about the Falkland Islands and Cristina, in particular, began a policy of attacking the islands in any way that she could. She took an interesting diplomatic stance by doing things such as:
- publicly called the islanders “squatters”
- threatening to do all she could to prevent the discovery and exploitation of oil in the islands
- removing Argentina from talks over oil extraction (that could easily have benefitted the Argentine economy)
- restricting the use of Argentine ports and waters to island ships (and the occasional cruise ship that included the Falklands on its itinerary)
- publishing an open letter in the Guardian calling for the islands to be Argentine
- publicly objecting to the deployment of Prince William to the islands as an aggressive move (he was a Search and Rescue pilot, but OK).
- giving state pensions to the terrorists who hijacked a passenger plane at gunpoint and landed it on the islands in 1966
- introducing a new law in Argentina to dictate that all public transport must carry the logo “Malvinas son Argentinas”
NOTE: This list is, by no means, exhaustive. There will be many other instances that can be recounted, but this is sufficient to get the point across (I think).
In the face of all of this, the Falkland Islanders decided to send a clear message to its fellow democratic neighbour and the wider world: an internationally monitored referendum. The result was predictable: over 90% of the electorate turned out and 99.6% of them voted to remain a British overseas territory. Similarly predictable was the Argentine response: it didn’t count as it is the territory they care about, not the people. An interesting stance for a democracy to take.
Thankfully for the Islanders, the Kirchners’ questionable economic policies led to defeat in the polls in 2015, losing to the capitalist Macri. He was open about improving relations with the United Kingdom and stuck to that. For the reasons already identified, he was unable to go too far in undoing the ‘Malvinas’ claim, but he remained largely silent on the matter and diplomatic relations were warming. Joint scientific collaborations concerning studies in the South Atlantic (cancelled under CFK) resumed, talks led to many of the unknown war dead in the Argentine cemetery being identified by the ICRC and, most recently, it seemed that a second flight to the Falklands from South America (Sao Paulo) would go ahead. Argentina still refuses to allow the Falkland Islanders to be present in any discussions (as they don’t view them as a people and they see all discussions as being between Argentina and Britain) so these kinds of agreements still haven’t been met with full support in the Falklands, but it does signal a diplomatic easing of tensions. The perceived compromises being made in the name of diplomacy are also often unpopular on both sides. The flights to the islands are, as far as I’m aware, the only instance in the World where a government dictates that a flight must land in its country in order to gain access to its air space and this, on principle, is objected to by some.
Macri’s defeat in the primaries and the threatened reinstallation of CFK as Vice-President could, then, usher in a new (another) era of economic and diplomatic bullying. It is likely that the second flight would be under threat and the diplomatic progress made so far undone.
Whether CFK returns to power or not, it is this writer’s view that the unique histories of the Falklands and Argentina mean that a ‘normal’ relationship is highly unlikely for many, many years to come. The claim to the Falklands is still enshrined in the Argentine constitution (and it would require majority support in their senate to remove it: highly unlikely). All sides are still mourning their war dead and all sides are democracies so they will be unwilling to lose public support by being seen to insult the sacrifices of their soldiers. The Falkland Islanders are distrustful of many Argentine or British attempts to build closer ties (that happened once before and they remember where it led…). Each year, the countries involved send delegations to the UN decolonisation committee to make, what is in essence, the same speeches and each year the UN votes that all sides should work toward a peaceful resolution of the dispute. Then they all go home and return the next year for the same thing. This repetitive outline of the stalemate seems to summarise the current situation well. For their own reasons, neither side can or will budge. It now becomes a matter of just how militant Argentina wishes to be in its claim.
This is, of course, a very simplistic breakdown of this intricate and highly emotive part of local history. The Falkland Islands Government summarises its position here and it is worth a read. Much of the above is, of course, hotly contested in many circles and will remain so for many years to come. I have simplified many things out of necessity so I can only hope that nothing that I have said or cut short has caused offence (to anyone with a valid, evidence-based, historical argument) but this is the situation as I read it. Just in case you’re interested. If you weren’t, I’m sorry you had to sit through all of that without a single reference to penguins or Milo Sheep. Normal service will be resumed shortly.