Last year I spent a month in Argentina. As a Briton, I was a bit anxious about going into 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 and there is a lot about how Las Malvinas are Argentinean. After a bit more time in Argentina you notice the government propaganda, like a sign at the entrance to a town saying the islands are Argentinean, and the London 2012 advert on television which showed the Argentine hockey captain training on the islands ending with the caption “To compete on English soil, we train on Argentine soil.” 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 the Premiership and in particular Manchester City (Argentines love football) but then often afterwards 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 a bit of humour. I spoke on the Argentinean radio station I was working at, contrasting the difference in how passionate Britons and Argentines are about the issue and giving my opinion. I then suggested why 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 in the United Kingdom: it is a small isolated episode in our country’s recent history; just one facet of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. It is a war distant for our generation, born a whole decade after the war, 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 as Argentinean geographically, and 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 supposedly 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 bit strange. 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.