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Don’t be Petulant, Argentina

It really did seem like yesterday, but it was a shock to recall that the Falklands War of 1982 really was 30 years ago. Where does the time go?

The Argentine invasion of the Falklands, which Buenos Aires claims are the ‘Malvinas’ and Argentine territory, was defeated. After a 73 day war in which 907 people died (649 Argentines, 255 British servicemen, and three Falklands Islanders), Britain retook the islands despite major logistical difficulties by compensating for these handicaps with daring and professionalism.

As an aside, the skill and imaginative tactics of the British in the Falklands War paid dividends elsewhere. Among other things, the generals in Guatemala stopped eyeballing Belize and the Soviets, calculating odds as they continuously did in the Cold War, suddenly had to revise their opinions of the ability of Western Troops. Coming as this did during the period of maximum vulnerability between the Warsaw Pact build-up of the 1970s and the NATO response of the 1980s, one wonders about what contribution the British performance might have made to a peaceful end of the Cold War. It was interesting to note that the Warsaw Pact propaganda characterizations of British officers as inept poltroons and of their soldiers as mercenary rubbish suddenly stopped, clearly suggesting a major Warsaw Pact re-think was underway.

In 1981, the Argentine Junta had been coming under increasing pressure due to its heavy-handed ways and the mishandling of the economy. They hoped to both distract the Argentine public and rally domestic support with the conquest of the islands. Instead, the swift and expensive defeat of their forces resulted in the end of the Junta and the restoration of democratic government in Argentina.

For the 30 years since the war, Argentina has had democratic rule which has had to withstand the economic shocks and disruptions of an economy plagued by debt, inflation and some corruption. Even so, the country has significant economic potential and a good standard of individual freedoms. In recent months, however, Buenos Aires has ramped up the rhetoric about its claim to ownership of the Falklands and has encouraged other Latin American countries to support its claim and cut off trade and travel to the island.

The Argentine military is not in a fit state to conquer the Falklands. Its Air Force, largely, still has the same aircraft that it did 30 years ago when the fighting stopped. Nor has its navy added any capital ships to the fleet. The Army is smaller and more efficiently organized but has also avoided any major equipment programmes in the years since the Falklands War.

Of course, Britain has a much smaller fleet than it did 30 years ago, but a quartet of Eurofighter Typhoons are based in the Falklands. The Typhoon can climb up to 60,000 feet in less than a minute, fire off up to 13 AIM 120C Air to Air Missiles, leave the missiles to find their own targets (which they will) and head back to their airfield for a quick reload. Any intruding Argentine aircraft would be destroyed. A Typhoon can also carry 12 laser guided bombs and leisurely savage incoming warships almost as easily – assuming a lurking British submarine (a Trafalgar class nuclear hunter-killer is often deployed thereabouts) didn’t sink them first.

Argentine Special Forces might be a different threat, but one would have to wonder how they could get to the Falklands. Placing a number of commandos aboard a cruise ship, trawler, or some other vessel is always possible, but not probable.

So plainly, another war of conquest is not likely: Instead, Argentina is stepping up diplomatic and logistic pressure on the Falklands.

By campaigning to get other South American nations to deny the British air landing rights to stage commercial and military flights to the Falklands, Argentina hopes to keep the Islands completely isolated. On March 1st, Argentina pressured Chile, which operates two weekly flights to the Falklands from its southeastern city Puenta Arenas, to cease allowing flights to the ‘Malvinas’. Then on March 3rd, Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez, called instead for flights to the islands to be handled from Buenos Aires by the Argentine state-owned airline Aerolinas Argentinas.

This would be tantamount to North Korea demanding an end to all flights to Seoul, South Korea, and then offering to continue to allow travel to Seoul provided that flights are routed through Pyongyang by North Korean aircraft. Straight off, one could predict no end of visa difficulties for the Falkland Islanders who have left home to go to university and now seek to return to the islands, or similar problems for the rotation of British service members to and from the Falklands Garrison. This also makes the scenario of a plane stuffed full of Argentine commandos on their way to knock out the British Typhoons much more plausible.

If Argentina can succeed in isolating the Falklands by also adding Uruguay, Brazil and Namibia to countries which would deny the British transit rights to the Falklands, the British position there will be untenable.

Worse still, Argentina has been so unscrupulous as to add Hollywood celebrities to its pressure tactics. Famed for their ignorance when trying to act moral on international issues, such luminaries can certainly carry some weight with those plebes who are more used to ‘infotainment’ then news. Sean Penn famously sounded off on the issue during a visit to Argentina in February 2012 when he opined that “The world today is not going to tolerate any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology.” We breathlessly await his next stroke of genius.

One might wonder why Argentina is suddenly so interested in reacquiring the Falkland Islands. Yes, Argentina does have a claim to the Islands.

At various times since the 16th Century, the Spanish and British had claimed the islands, but there was no permanent settlement. For what it is worth, the British were the first to claim the Islands as theirs in 1690, before Spain claimed them. In any event, nobody lived there.

In 1820, an American adventurer/pirate, named David Jewett, acting, barely, under the authority of the United Provinces of the River Platte (a predecessor state to Argentina and Uruguay) claimed to have annexed the islands for the United Provinces, but he neglected to tell his employers about it. Argentina made several unsuccessful attempts to colonize the Islands from 1824 to 1832, when the soldiers at their tiny penal colony mutinied. The next year, the British asserted their claim, to the relief of the handful of impoverished settlers who were eking out a very thin living. A handful of Argentines raided the settlement with muskets borrowed from an American sealer and murdered five settlers (thus becoming a valiant band of freedom-loving patriots in Argentina’s narrative). Regardless, the British restored order and the Falklands have remained British territory since.

The Falklands were important to the Royal Navy as a coaling station and fleet anchorage through the bulk of the 19th Century (part of the network of such around the world). Prior to the 1982 invasion, the most significant event associated with the Islands was the destruction of a German cruiser squadron on December 8th, 1914 off Port Stanley during the First World War.

This raises three points. For Argentina to assert a historical claim to the Islands now, one should then be forced to consider other reasonable claims from after 1833. Would Germany care to demand that Poland and Lithuania return Prussia? Might Mexico assert a demand for Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California (where Sean Penn lives)? Should France cede Savoy to the heirs of the rulers of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia? Atlas and map-makers would bless the day.

Oh, and Bolivia would probably like access to the Pacific again so Chile and Peru should cede some lands as well; they will understand the principle if they support Argentina, of course. Might Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and much of Greece like to submit to Turkish rule once more too?

Permanent secure settlement on the Islands had not occurred before the British arrived, and the UK did not wrest the islands from Argentina by force. They simply made settlement possible. Unlike the instances cited above, the British ownership of the Falklands is far more legitimate that the boundaries established in 1848 between Mexico and the US or in the Balkans in 1912 or in Central Europe in 1945.

Secondly, the Islanders have made it amply clear on numerous occasions that the vast majority of them prefer British to Argentine rule. The Islanders (‘Kelpers’ as they call themselves) can trace their descent from Americans, Argentines, Britons, Chileans, Scots, Welsh, and a host of others. The majority are of mostly British descent and English has been the main working language of daily life there since the 1830s.

The Islanders were friendly towards Argentina before the Junta took over in 1975 and are now better disposed to Chile and Uruguay. However, their own preference, periodically expressed in referenda every year, is clearly to remain British. Taken as a whole, they are ecologically-minded, fond of their stark environment, and generally independent in outlook.

The third point is the absolute cynicism with which one can view Argentina’s current obsession with the Islands. The world has seen Argentina’s obsession used as a diversion from domestic unrest and grievances before… and times are troubled nowadays, particularly for nations with sluggish economies and high debt-loads. Nor is Argentina the only country to behave thusly.

The cold grey and choppy seas between the Falklands and the Argentine coast conceal deposits of oil and natural gas. The exploration has been expensive and the results have been mixed, but it seems the most productive field that is ready for exploitation lies just to the north of the Islands. Argentina has been making threatening noises about litigating against any company engaged in drilling off the Islands, or any bank which finances such activity. Interestingly, if Argentina claims to be working on behalf of the best interests of the Falkland Islanders, most of them are opposed to the development of the field too.

So Argentina has nursed a long grudge; exercises it when the population need distraction and is casting greedy eyes on someone else’s resources. There is no other way to view their current preoccupation and all the grand-standing and photo-ops with undereducated film stars which Buenos Aires can muster cannot change that.

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