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‘The islands belong to Argentina, but…’

give way sign in Falklands-Malvinas
A traffic sign in the Falklands-Malvinas. Neither the British nor the Argentinian government wants to cede on the islands' sovereignty. Victor under a CC Licence
Miriam is the wife of a military man and she is adamant.

‘She should just leave it,’ she says. I’m suprised. Of all the people I’ve spoken to, I would have expected Miriam to be most positive about attempts by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to reclaim the islands for Argentina, 30 years after the country’s disastrous defeat in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war with Britain.

Miriam was herself in the military at the time. But she is unimpressed by the President’s strident and emphatically public attempts to shame Britain into opening negotiations with Argentina over sovereignty of the islands.

‘It’s all for show,’ Miriam says. ‘It’s to distract attention from the things she is doing within the country.’

It should be said at this point that Miriam is no fan of the President, or la mujer – the woman – as she calls her. And this probably colours her view. The Clarin newspaper group that dominates the country’s media takes a similar view on the underlying motives for the relaunched Malvinas campaign.

But even among those generally in favour with the government – or at least strongly opposed to the conservative forces associated with the Clarin group, I’ve encountered little actual enthusiasm for Cristina’s position and that being expressed by her controversial foreign minister Héctor Timerman.

There is, rather, a sense that the situation needs to be resolved at some point, but that there are other, more pressing issues at home – rising food prices and 25 per-cent inflation, a rapid slowdown in economic growth, poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption.

On the international stage, a recently drawn-up memorandum of understanding with Iran to work together to investigate a 1994 terrorist bomb attack at a Jewish social centre in Buenos Aires that claimed 85 lives, has sparked internal as well as external ructions. The country’s large Jewish community is strongly against it, as are members of the Peronist dissident party.

But when it comes to the Malvinas, one thing seems to unite all – the fundamental credo:  ‘The islands belong to Argentina, of course.’ Regardless, it seems, of politics, social background, gender or race.

Just as Britain uses history to back its claim, so does Argentina. Just different bits of history. Neither seem interested in finding out who might have been the islands’ original Amerindian inhabitants.

But many of the Argentinians I have spoken with while researching a forthcoming issue of New Internationalist, recognize that the issue is more complex than official rhetoric would have people think.

The fact that the islands’ 3,000 inhabitants – the so called ‘kelpers’ – see themselves as British and want to remain so, somewhat complicates the official Argentine line that it’s engaged in a liberation struggle against British colonialism.

It throws up plenty of contradictions. So Fernando Orchanis, from the progressive Frente Popular Dario Sandillan, says: ‘We are not suggesting that the inhabitants should change culture or speak Spanish. As an organization we believe in the rights to self-determination. But the islands are Argentinian.’

Gaston Chillier, of the leading human rights organization CELS, makes clear he is not an expert in the area. While stating that the islands are Argentinian, he also acknowledges that the issue is ‘complicated’ and that the islanders have their human rights too. Leading economist Arnaldo Bocca sees the issue as primarily one of the quest for natural resources and economic sovereignty. ‘It’s very complex but it needs to be discussed and resolved. Perhaps the Hong Kong model might provide a solution?’

Currently, proper discussion does not seem to be on the agenda. Britain refuses to discuss sovereignty with Argentina. The government of Argentina, according to the islanders, will not speak to them.

With a British-orchestrated referendum of islanders due in mid-March, both Britain and Argentina have been busy mustering international support for their cause. Britain can count on the Commonwealth; Argentina has the backing of most of its Latin American neighbours and several friendly African states.

This week, US spokesperson John Kerry announced that while his country recognized the  British administration of the islands, it remained neutral on the issue of sovereignty.

In Argentina the US is not seen as neutral. US oil companies are involved with Britain in exploration for oil around the islands. The US is also seen as being keen to maintain, via Britain, a strategic military foothold in the South Atlantic.

Argentinian reports that Britain has been packing the island with military personnel raise questions of what impact this is likely to have on the referendum, in which an overwhelmingly majority is expected to vote in favour of remaining part of Britian. As one Argentinean friend put it: ‘The fact is, the kelpers don’t really want anything to do with us and our culture.’

Twenty-three-year-old student Diego Martinez does not see why Britain should want to return the islands. ‘There was a war. Lots of people died. Can you expect the winners, 30 years later, to just hand back the islands and say – there you are?’

Meanwhile, increased British military presence and oil exploration is seen by Argentinian authorities as a provocation to Argentina, which is trying to increase its energy sources – and is even looking into the possibility of ‘fracking’ with US oil giant Chevron. There were also reports this week in the Argentine media that Britain was sending nuclear weapons to the area – which is meant to be nuclear free.

In Britain, a recent Sunday Times article suggested that Argentina’s accord with Iran was to do with collaborating on the development of long-range missiles to reach the Falklands/Malvinas. The story is dismissed by the Buenos Aires Herald as ‘dubious’ – but it will have ticked at least two boxes for British paranoia.

Maybe Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is not the only one spinning this issue for political gain.

Plus ça change?

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