Argentina on new campaign to win Falklands, 30 years after war

March 31, 2012

Thirty years after Argentina’s failed invasion of the Falkland Islands, President Cristina Fernandez is ratcheting up pressure by trying to isolate the archipelago’s English-speaking inhabitants while heaping scorn on a British government that has refused to relinquish control.

Argentina’s efforts, calculated to force Prime Minister David Cameron’s government into sovereignty negotiations, come at a poignant moment for Argentina: the anniversary of the land-and-sea assault launched against the islands on April 2, 1982, by a waning dictatorship. Though lasting just 74 days, the war had all the hallmarks of a fierce conventional conflict, complete with sunken warships, the firing of Exocet missiles, artillery bombardments, amphibious landings, aerial dogfights and more than 900 deaths.

Argentina, now ruled by a democratic government, condemns the military junta that made the decision to invade in a last-gasp effort to save its crumbling hold on power. But Fernandez says her country is still in the right to claim the islands — 300 miles off Argentina’s coast — which Argentine invaders were unable to hold from a fleet of more than 100 ships deployed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In recent weeks, Argentina has embarked on a multi-pronged effort that has included stopping British vessels from docking and winning support from neighboring countries to restrict port access to ships flying the Falkland Islands flag. The Argentine industry minister called on companies to reduce British imports, and the president has accused Cameron of “near stupidity” for refusing to negotiate.

In Argentina’s latest gambit, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman informed the London and New York stock markets that oil exploration companies in the Falkland Islands could risk civil and criminal penalties for operating “illegally,” as he put it. “I think they have to realize that the Empire is dead,” he said in an interview last year. “And at some point, they will have to accept to negotiate with us.”


The Argentine president’s efforts have generated backing from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the actor Sean Penn, who told the news media in Buenos Aires that “the world will not tolerate the ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology” on the part of Britain.

But residents of the Falkland Islands say Argentina’s efforts have only hardened their resolve, among them Sharon Halford, a sixth-generation islander. “If you want to get people on board who you want to take over and bring to your way of thinking, it’s not the best thing to isolate them and keep them isolated,” Halford said. “I would want to be friendly with them.”

Residents’ perspective

Residents of the islands say Argentina’s efforts have been largely symbolic — annoying to the 3,000 islanders but far from a chokehold.

“It hasn’t been terribly successful,” said Stephen Luxton, the director of mineral resources on the islands. “We’re in a very remote place. We’re used to working around problems.”

Cameron’s government, though, has been concerned enough by Argentina’s efforts to deploy the destroyer HMS Dauntless to the region while holding meetings to discuss security in London.

At the moment, defense on the islands is formidable, provided by four Typhoon jet fighters and 1,300 troops. In February, one of the servicemen was Prince William, a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot with the Royal Air Force, who was deployed to the islands for a short stint that infuriated the Argentines.

More than 30 British diplomatic delegations over the past 18 months have visited various Latin American capitals in part to explain London’s position.

“The absolutely vital point is that we are clear that the future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the people themselves,” Cameron told Parliament this year. “And as long as they want to remain part of the United Kingdom and be British, they should be able to do so.”

Cameron’s position has played well in Britain, where a recent poll published in the Guardian newspaper showed that 61 percent of respondents believed Britain should defend the Falkland Islands “no matter the cost.”

It’s a lot of attention for a string of islands, hundreds of them in all, more than 8,000 miles from London.

But the windswept archipelago, a self-governing British overseas territory, is not inconsequential. The islands are a gateway to the Antarctic Peninsula, where Britain conducts scientific studies, and the waters around them are rich in sea life.

And recently, oil has been discovered, drawing five small companies looking for the big strike. British exploration firm Rockhopper Exploration believes that it has found a cache of 450 million barrels, but there could be much more.

If the costs of extraction make the reserves economically viable, oil would alleviate British defense spending that totals $320 million annually. It would also lure immigrants drawn by the economic prospects, creating yet another obstacle to Argentina’s pretensions.

“If there is commercial oil,” said David Hudd, chairman of Falkland Islands Holdings, which invests on the islands, “it could also lead to an increase in population in one of the world’s least-populated places.”

‘Las Malvinas are ours’

In Argentina, though, it is prevailing wisdom that the islands — briefly held by an Argentine garrison until 1833 — will one day be successfully resettled. Passions run high here, with polls showing that the vast majority of Argentines support the government’s campaign to pressure Britain over Las Malvinas, as the islands are called here.

“Las Malvinas are Argentine, by geography and history,” said retired naval Capt. Juan Carlos Ianuzzo, a veteran of the failed invasion. “Spain gave them to us. The English usurped them and threw out the governor that we had put there. We are much closer to them, too.”

Julian Vincent, 27, who works in the import-export department of a multinational, said recuperating the islands “marks us from the time we are born until we die.”

“We finish every day, from the time we wake up until we fall asleep, with the certainty that Las Malvinas are ours,” he said.

Vicente Palermo, a history professor here who wrote “Salt in the Wounds: Las Malvinas in Contemporary Argentine Culture,” agrees with his countrymen.

But he said that the government, facing a slip in its popularity and growing economic difficulties, appears to be using the dispute with Britain to divert attention. Palermo also said he believes Fernandez’s tactics have been ham-fisted and counterproductive.

“Any sensible person would know that winning the confidence of the islanders or trying to would be best,” he said.

Still, despite the deep divide between Argentina and Britain, there have been small acts of civility.

Recently, one involved Neil Wilkinson, a Briton who had been a gunner on the HMS Intrepid during the war and downed an Argentine fighter plane.

Feeling an inexplicably strong tug to meet the man he thought he had killed, Wilkinson recently returned to Argentina and met the pilot, Mariano Velasco. “I had a lovely meal with his family,” Wilkinson said. “It brought me such an uplifting feeling.”

And yet, when asked about the future of the Falkland Islands, Wilkinson clearly adheres to the British position. “The people on the islands are British subjects, and you defend your people, don’t you?” he said. “You look after your own.”

Faiola reported from London.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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