As you may know, I have recently spent a month in Argentina. As a Briton, I was a bit anxious about going into a country where tensions over Las Malvinas are running high, particularly after seeing the warnings 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 in Argentina, the most obvious sign is from the graffiti. Whereas in the United Kingdom graffiti is normally about tagging or rude words, in Argentina street art is incredibly political. This extends to foreign affairs, i.e., about how Las Malvinas are Argentinean (I can’t envisage seeing ‘EU referendum now!’ scrawled on the side of a wall in the Home Counties). After a bit more time in Argentina you notice the government propaganda, for example a sign at the entrance to a town saying the islands are Argentinean, and the infamous London 2012 advert on television. Apparently in schools students are taught about the issue as well. When you tell someone you are English, you are likely to get asked about football (Argentineans like the Premiership and in particular Manchester City) and maybe afterwards about the Falklands. Most Argentineans unsurprisingly think the islands do not belong to us. I think I should say at this point that yet there doesn’t seem much resentment towards Britain or the British as a whole. I never felt threatened or scared because of my nationality. Most awkward questions are not asked in total seriousness and can be deflected with a bit of humour.
Clearly there is less interest in the issue in Britain. The fight between two bald men over a comb is not really talked about in the United Kingdom: it is a small isolated episode in our 20th century foreign conflicts, not really part of any broader pattern like World War II, the Cold War, the War on Terror or foreign intervention; and just one facet of what is known as Thatcher’s Britain. It is a war distant for a whole generation who weren’t alive in 1982 or weren’t old enough to remember it properly; basically anyone under about 40. This year’s 30th anniversary and recent wars of words between Kirchner and Cameron have put the issue of sovereignty in the news here, but in general it is not something we think about much. It is not something discussed down the pub or around the dinner table. I wonder how many Brits could actually locate the Falklands on a map. This YouGov poll measured opinions between residents of both countries. When asked How important an issue, if at all, do you think the Falkland Islands are to the UK? 25% of British people answered that the islands are very important to the UK. When Argentines were asked the corresponding question about Argentina, 56% answered very important.
I think the British media overlooks the sentiments of the Argentinean people in news coverage. The British perspective of the war, portrayed in our media, is that in 1982 the Falklands were British islands, inhabited by British people, which were invaded by a particularly unpleasant Argentinean military dictatorship. This is all true. However Argentineans may in turn see Las Malvinas as islands which are arguably Argentinean geographically, which 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. This is also true.
Whoever you think the islands ‘belong’ to, it is important to recognise that both sides have genuine reasons to lay claim to them and genuinely think they are right. To simply say Argentina (or for that matter the United Kingdom) is being opportunistic, selfish, self-important or greedy misses the point. Christine Kirchner can reasonably claim to be following public opinion when she criticises the UK. When the aforementioned YouGov poll asked Which of these options do you think would be the fairest solution to the Falklands situation? 66% of Argentineans said The Falklands becoming Argentinean sovereign territory. A comparatively small percentage of respondents from the UK, 37%, answered with Britain retaining sovereignty over the Falklands.
However, the issue is easily exploited for political gains on both sides of the Atlantic. In Argentina, it is actually the Left which has taken on the mantle of defending Argentinean interests in the South Atlantic. Left-wing groups have protested about Las Malvinas in Argentina and threatened to disrupt this year’s Olympics, and Kirchner leads a centre-left party. This may seem strange as in the UK we associate the Right with chest-beating nationalism and the Left with detached internationalism, but it is because it is the Left which is most prepared to denounce what it sees as continued colonialism and imperialism.
Christine Kirchner knows that when she talks about the islands she can unite the nation behind her. Kirchner won convincingly in the last elections, 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. David Cameron looks strong when he appears to be standing up for Britain, even though the prospect of a direct war in the 21st century between two democratically elected governments which are both members of the UN is very small. However, scaremongering helps both the government and the military. When military people claim our army would no longer be able to defend the Falklands, it sounds to me like a plea for more funding.
My personal position is moderate. Although I am not an apologist for British colonialists, I find the idea of making up for past colonialism by taking ownership of land against the will of the people who live on that land more than a bit hypocritical. Would we be justified in going to war over the islands again? I don’t think so. 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.
I spoke on Argentinean radio, contrasting the difference in how passionate the British and the Argentineans are about the issue. I questioned why there was so much Argentinean interest in the Falklands, said we should be careful about politicians stirring up anger for their own political reasons, and finished by saying both countries shouldn’t obsess too much over the islands. When questioned afterwards, I went on to suggest why the United Kingdom should keep the islands. The reaction I received wasn’t too warm; the most memorable message was one expressing the sender’s desire for my plane home to fall into the sea. This is understandable. As well as the fact that I appeared to support Britain’s claim to the Falklands, it is in British interests to stop Argentineans worrying about the Falklands, so Argentineans may have been suspicious of my message telling them to care less, which could have been interpreted as patronising and disingenuous . Yet I really was being honest.
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.