LONDON — More than 30 years after Argentina’s unsuccessful invasion of the Falkland Islands, a fresh war of words has broken out over the sovereignty of the British territory, a rocky archipelago about 8,000 miles from London but harboring outsize importance to both countries.
The latest bout of controversy erupted after Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner issued a scathing letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, which also ran as an open note to the British public Thursday in London’s Guardian newspaper. She demanded negotiations to hand over the islands, insisting that Britain was in violation of a 1960 U.N. resolution seeking to “end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.”
The letter sparked immediate indignation in Britain’s halls of power, with the notoriously zealous British tabloids joining the fray Friday. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tabloid took out an advertisement in the Buenos Aires Herald, warning Argentines to keep their “hands off” the islands.
The latest exchanges underscore the extent to which the sparsely populated islands, which cost the lives of more than 900 people in the 1982 Falklands War, remain a hot-button issue on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The future of the Falkland Islands should be determined by the Falkland Islanders themselves,” Cameron said in a statement on British television. “Whenever they’ve been asked their opinion, they’ve said they want to maintain their current status with the United Kingdom. They’re holding a referendum this year, and I hope the president of Argentina will listen to that referendum and recognize it’s for the Falkland Islanders to choose their future.”
London’s efforts to preserve the Falklands, one of the last outposts of the British Empire, have long been viewed, at least in part, as an attempt to maintain a vestige of its glorious past. But over the past 18 months, the issue of ownership has also become a question of economic gain, with the discovery of potential vast stores of oil. Rockhopper Exploration, a British oil firm, thinks that it has found a cache of 450 million barrels, with the potential for more.
Equally central to Britain’s position is the fundamental belief that the Falkland Islanders should have the right to self-determination. Residents of the English-speaking islands have long stated a desire to remain British. In the face of mounting political pressures from Argentina, the residents of the Falkland Islands have scheduled a referendum for March in order to reaffirm their standing as a British overseas territory.
The evolving struggle over the islands has, over the past few months, resulted in another kind of war — an economic attack on the cruise ship industry. Tensions have risen as Argentina has begun prohibiting ships flying United Kingdom or Falkland Island flags from docking in Argentine ports.
These escalated measures have resulted in several cruise lines canceling trips to the Falklands altogether.Among them, Holland America’s Veendam, German liner AIDAcara, and Prestige Cruise Holdings’ Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises have scrapped visits, blaming pressure from Argentina. Eighty-one cruise ships and 60,000 passengers were scheduled to visit Stanley, the capital, this season, which lasts until April, but that number has already been drastically reduced.
In what might be considered a patriotic stand, major British cruise line P&O Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival U.K., has canceled all scheduled visits to Argentine ports in 2013. The news came after Britain summoned Argentina’s ambassador to London, Alicia Castro, to protest what the British government considers to be “increasingly aggressive actions against the people of the Falklands Islands.” Among these was an attack led by masked men who tore apart a shipping services company in Buenos Aires. The British government alleges that the assault was made in an effort to deter vessels from visiting the Falklands. After the incident on Nov. 19, the cruise company associated with the shipping agents decided to cancel a trip to the islands.
Attempts to squash the Falklands’ tourism industry have taken a toll on Stanley, where about a quarter of the working population is involved in cruise ship tourism.
Small-business owners Kevin and Hattie Kilmartin run Bluff Cove Lagoon Penguin Tours near Stanley.
“We had a war here 30 years ago; we’re not unused to the fact that Argentina has certain issues with us,” Kevin Kilmartin said. “But recently they’ve been cranking up the economic warfare.”