Last year I spent a month in Argentina. As a Briton, I was anxious about going to a country where tensions over The Falkland Islands are running high, particularly after seeing warnings about protests on the Foreign Office website.
The legacy of the war and the sovereignty of islands about 1,500 km from Buenos Aires still ignite passions. On arrival, the most obvious sign is the graffiti. Unlike in the United Kingdom, in Argentina graffiti is incredibly political with much claiming sovereignty Las Malvinas. After more time in Argentina you notice the government propaganda: a sign at the entrance to a town claims that the islands are Argentinean, and the London 2012 advert on television showed the Argentine hockey captain training on the islands ending with the caption “To compete on English soil, we train on Argentine soil.” Students are taught about the issue in school.
When you tell someone you are English, you are likely to get asked about the Premiership, in particular Manchester City (Argentines love football) but then, often, someone will raise the topic of the Falklands, which most locals think belong to them. However, there didn’t seem to be much resentment towards the British and I never felt threatened or scared. Most awkward questions are not asked in total seriousness and can be deflected with humour. I spoke on the Argentinean radio station at which I was working, contrasting the difference in how passionate Britons and Argentines are about the issue and giving my opinion. I then suggested that the United Kingdom should keep the islands. The reaction I received wasn’t too warm: one person said he hoped my plane home would fall into the sea.
Clearly there is less interest in the issue in Britain. The Falklands War, which Jorge Luis Borges described as “a fight between two bald men over a comb”, is not really talked about here: it is a small, isolated episode in our country’s recent history; just one facet of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. It is a distant war for our generation, born a whole decade later, and not something discussed down the pub or around the dinner table. I wonder how many Brits could actually locate the Falklands on a map. A YouGov poll measured opinions of residents of both countries. When asked “How important an issue, if at all, do you think the Falkland Islands are” to their respective country, only 25% of British people answered ‘Very important’, compared to 56% of Argentines.
The British perspective of the war and the story told in our media is that in 1982 the Falklands (belonging to Britain and inhabited by the British) were invaded by a particularly unpleasant Argentinean military dictatorship. However, Argentineans in turn may see Las Malvinas, Argentinean geographically, as islands that were conquered and then inhabited by the same sort of British colonialists who traded slaves. They have never been ‘returned’, with the United Kingdom swimming against the tide of international opinion and refusing dialogue.
It is important to recognise that both sides have some justification to lay claim to the islands. However, the issue is easily exploited for political gains on both sides of the Atlantic. In Argentina, left-wing groups have protested about Las Malvinas in Argentina and threatened to disrupt the London Olympics. The President Christina Kirchner knows that when she talks about the islands she can unite the nation behind her. She won the last elections convincingly, but her relationship with the unions is cracking, whilst there are protests about the government’s attempts to reduce the use of US dollars. In this context especially, it is useful to paint a foreign country as ‘the enemy’.
The same applies to some extent to our politicians: scaremongering helps both the government and the military. David Cameron looks strong when he appears to be protecting the islands, even though the prospect of a war is almost non-existent, and when those connected to the military claim our army would no longer be able to defend the Falklands it sounds like a plea for more funding.
Despite hearing the Argentinean side of the story, I find the idea of ‘making up for past colonialism’ by doing exactly what the colonialists used to do, i.e. taking ownership of land against the will of the people who live there, more than a little odd. I know this sounds vague, but some middle way solution between the two countries, perhaps involving sharing revenues from the islands’ natural resources, seems to me to be the best option. Only 1% of Brits claimed to know a great deal about Argentina, its history and its people. It would be a shame if that percentage only increased thanks to unnecessary anger on both sides.
What do you think? Why has this debate endured for so long? Tweet us @PalatiComment with your views.