By Ed Hancox
One of my earliest memories of foreign affairs from my childhood was the brief war between Argentina and Great Britain over the small, wind-swept Falkland Islands in 1982. In response to the Argentine seizure of the islands, which they call Islas Malvinas and claim as their own, the British sent a naval flotilla halfway around the world to retake them. Without GPS, YouTube, broadband satellite uplinks or any of the other tools of modern journalism, I remember watching the progress of the British fleet on the nightly news as a red dot on a map slowly, very slowly, making its way down the length of the Atlantic Ocean towards the Falklands. Once they arrived, the British troops fought a two-month battle to return the Falklands and their population of roughly 2,000 people, many of whom scraped out an existence on the barren islands as sheep farmers, to Queen and Country at a cost of 258 dead on their side and 649 for the Argentineans.
Even though famed Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges dismissed the war for the Falklands as so pointless it was like “two bald men fighting over a comb,” gaining ownership of the Falklands (or Malvinas) has long played a passionate role in the Argentine psyche, even though the islands themselves are little more than seaweed-encircled clusters of rocks jutting out of the cold South Atlantic where sheep outnumber people by a ratio of about 200-to-1. Still they insist that the British have long been illegally occupying the islands, which rightfully belong to Argentina. The British claim to the Falklands largely boils down to that age-old concept of “finders, keepers.” The British say that because they have controlled the islands since 1833, the Falklands rightfully are theirs, and that their victory in the 1982 war only solidified their claim of sovereignty (following the war London extended full British citizenship to all Falklanders). Unfortunately for the Argentineans, their claims of sovereignty are just about as weak; they feel the Falklands should belong to Argentina because the islands are so much closer to Argentina than they are to Great Britain and because of the Argentinean’s interpretation of their country as the successor state to Spain in the “New World” in a pair of nearly two-century old treaties. The simplest, and United Nations Resolution 1514-approved, way to settle the matter would be to leave it up to the residents of the Falklands to decide on their own future. But since the Falklanders are mostly British citizens who would almost surely vote to remain part of the United Kingdom, Argentina has steadfastly refused to abide by any exercise of self-determination on the part of the islanders.
Unresolved disputes like the Falklands make up the background noise in international affairs, often they can drag on for decades without having much of a negative effect on bilateral relations between nations. But in recent weeks Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner decided to move the Falklands dispute to the forefront of her country’s political discourse; the Falklands/Malvinas issue took on a prominent role at the recent Rio Group Summit of 32 Latin American nations who, not surprisingly, backed the Argentine position and called on Great Britain to end “colonialism” in the Western Hemisphere. But why make such an issue over the Falklands now? Many commentators are pointing to oil as the culprit, specifically Great Britain’s decision to start drilling prospect wells in the seabed surrounding the islands.
It’s believed that the deep seabed around the Falklands could hold up to 60 billion barrels of oil. Until 2007 Great Britain and Argentina actually had an agreement to share the exploration of and potential oil revenues from the sea surrounding the Falklands. That is they had an agreement until President Nestor Kirchner (husband of current president Cristina) unilaterally pulled Argentina out of the deal. The British have now decided to go it alone and have transported a deep sea-drilling rig to start prospecting in a new field to the southwest of the islands. If the field is indeed as large as projected and if the oil can be retrieved at an economically viable cost, licensing fees and royalties could give the 3,000 people who now inhabit the Falklands one of the highest per capita standards of living anywhere in the world.
The reality behind Cristina Kirchner’s pro-Malvinas drive though is far more cynical than a mere desire to capitalize on the potential oil revenues of the Falklands seabed region. Back in 1982 another Argentine leader, General Leopoldo Galtieri, saw a quick and easy war in the Falklands as the perfect way to rally his citizens ‘round the flag and to stop their civil demonstrations against both his ruling military junta and the nation’s faltering economy. Today, Cristina Kirchner is dealing with a host of domestic problems of her own, including: an inflation rate that recently hit a 20-year high, a rising national debt level and a huge increase the price of beef (beef is one of Argentina’s main agricultural products). She has also been battling members of her own government over a plan to use billions of dollars of reserves from Argentina’s central bank to pay off foreign creditors. The domestic problems are casting a shadow over the Kirchners’ prospects in the upcoming 2011 presidential elections (it’s not yet clear which Kirchner will actually run). It would seem then, that like Galtieri before her, Cristina Kirchner thinks that whipping up public emotion over the issue of returning the Falklands to Argentina is a great way to distract them from a host of other domestic problems.
It’s a tactic though that is doomed to fail. Despite the bluster on their part, there really is no military solution for Argentina in the Falklands. In 1982 the British had basically left the islands undefended, allowing the Argentineans to take them with little effort. Since then the British have built an airbase and stationed a garrison of soldiers on the Falklands, along with sending Royal Navy ships on regular patrols in the waters surrounding the islands, the Argentinean military, meanwhile, is a less formidable force now than they were in 1982. Kirchner herself seems to realize this; she stressed that Argentina wanted a negotiated settlement during the Rio Summit. But, thanks to the spike in rhetoric, the British aren’t in a negotiating mood, while the simplest resolution to the Falklands question – self-determination on the part of the islanders – is unacceptable to the Argentineans since the Falklanders are so staunchly pro-British.
Ultimately then Kirchner’s cynical use of an issue that inflames the passion of many Argentineans is likely to backfire on her. The people will want to see the Malvinas returned to them, but Kirchner can’t win them back on the battlefield nor at the negotiating table. In the end, she’ll have no choice but to back down on the sovereignty issue, making her look like a weak leader in the process.