Monday 2nd April will mark the 30th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, with the sovereignty issue representing a central focus of Argentine foreign policy this year and bilateral tensions with the UK rapidly rising. On 7th February President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced plans to present a complaint to the UN Security Council over UK ‘militarisation’ of the South Atlantic, and Buenos Aires’ current ‘diplomatic siege’ has already made some gains: the Mercosur trading bloc recently banned Falklands-flagged ships from berthing in their ports, while in October the summit of the South American Union (UNASUR) condemned the UK presence in the islands and urged London to enter bilateral talks with Buenos Aires. Argentina itself has warned that it will impose sanctions on companies either exploring for oil in the disputed waters, or providing finance or services for companies that do.
The long-standing Argentine claim – dismissed by London – to the Falklands/Malvinas is based on the argument that they were occupied by a UK naval force in 1833 at the time of the wars of independence against Spain, and thus ‘usurped’ rather than forming part of the newly independent Argentina. However, the issue has gained increasing importance elsewhere in Latin America (notably Brazil) in recent years owing to the rise of oil exploration activities around the islands, and the related UK claims to a large swathe of the South Atlantic and Antarctica. In 2007 the United Kingdom staked its claim to some 386,000 square miles of the South Atlantic, an enormous area that overlaps the entire area claimed by Argentina, and part of that claimed by Chile. All this comes as a part of the ‘race for the poles and seabeds’ related to rising demands for hydrocarbons, mineral and fishing wealth.
Moreover, unlike in 1982, Argentina is a democracy integrated within regional bodies, and there is greater diplomatic support for its claims than before, although its insistence on the issue may begin to weary some regional neighbours who do not see it as a key priority. (Even Washington has offered to mediate the dispute, rather than wholeheartedly supporting London.)
Both sides in the dispute have long tended to indulge in a ‘dialogue of the deaf’:
- The UK has long refused to engage in dialogue over the sovereignty question, dismissing the Argentine position as politically motivated – a position fortified by the misguided invasion by the dictatorship in 1982.
- For its part, Buenos Aires has given short shrift to the concerns of the islanders (who, by any definition, are neither Argentines nor a colonised people seeking independence), further antagonised by its increasingly hostile stance since 2003.
A degree of political motivation cannot be excluded. Although re-elected with 54% of the vote in October, Fernandez de Kirchner faces an increasingly complicated economic environment, which in turn will have political consequences. Thus, an emotive issue able to stir patriotic sentiment (especially around the anniversary this year) can prove politically useful. Nonetheless, although political calculation is seldom far from the government’s calculations, the president and her late husband are from the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, the closest point to the islands and the most directly involved in the 1982 conflict. The issue has far greater resonance there than in the country overall. Moreover, Argentine resentment over British economic influence in the 19th century in particular remains strong in some quarters. UK interests at the time dominated finance, transport and an economic structure based on exports of primary materials and imports of manufactures – and the perception that it treated Argentina as a virtual part of its empire is fanned by a not-very-diplomatic treatment of the sovereignty claims.
Repeated claims that a new invasion could be on the cards are implausible and possibly opportunistic, designed to boost opposition to defence spending cuts in the UK. London may also be indulging in exaggerated rhetoric in order to boost political support at a time of economic difficulties. In practice, direct confrontation should be ruled out, but with neither side having any obvious motive to resolve the dispute, the 30th anniversary will be an occasion for much posturing but little substantive progress in improving bilateral ties. ■
Jill Hedges is the author of Argentina: A Modern History, has been Senior Editor for Latin America at Oxford Analytica since 2001 and was formerly Editorial Manager of business information service Esmerk Argentina. She has a PhD in Latin American Studies from the University of Liverpool.
Image courtesy of Rahuldlucca.