By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 8, 2007
BUENOS AIRES -- As they organize separate 25th anniversary ceremonies to remember their war over the Falkland Islands, Argentine and British officials have found that remembering is the easy part.
Resolving, however, is a much trickier proposition.
The windblown archipelago is once again claiming headlines here, climbing back near the top of Argentina's international agenda a quarter-century after its military surrendered the territory to Britain.
Last week Argentina aimed yet another rhetorical dart at Britain, publicly reasserting its claim to islands it says were stolen by the English in 1833. The British should be getting the message by now: President Nestor Kirchner's government in the past year has issued official complaints concerning rights to the islands at a rate of more than one per month.
Meanwhile, Argentina's legislature has convened a committee dedicated to bolstering its claim over the islands, which sit about 350 miles off its coast and where sheep outnumber people by about 220 to 1. The Argentine government has pushed for, and has received, attention from the United Nations, which drafted a committee resolution last year recommending negotiations. Some political leaders in the region, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, have also publicly rallied around the cause.
"Until the United Kingdom gives the islands back to Argentina, we have a moral obligation as Argentines to work toward their recuperation," said Santiago Tettamanzi, 69, a former merchant marine who plans to participate in a ceremony in April commemorating the war. "We never lost our rights to sovereignty. Getting them back is a national cause."
Patriotism is stirred quickly when people here talk about the islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas. That sentiment is not lost on the nation's political strategists. Many historians say Argentina's military dictatorship started the war 25 years ago in a desperate effort to save itself; the government was buckling under heavy public opposition, and it clutched at the most convenient unifying national cause it could find. On April 2, 1982, the military launched attacks from the port city of Rio Gallegos to begin the doomed invasion.
Over the following 73 days, more than 250 Britons and about 650 Argentines were killed as Britain regained control. The two countries eventually restored diplomatic relations in 1990.
Kirchner grew up in Rio Gallegos, and like the overwhelming majority of its residents, he has always opposed British claims to the islands as a matter of principle. But with presidential elections set for later this year, campaign politics might also play a role in the hard-line stance, analysts say.
"The recuperation of the Malvinas must be a national objective, and through peaceful dialogue we must recover them," Kirchner said at a rally last year. "That doesn't mean we will live with bowed heads, but instead will confidently defend that which is ours."
British officials say they won't hold negotiations until the islands' residents ask for them. Prime Minister Tony Blair two weeks ago assured islanders that Britain would continue to defend their right to decide the islands' future.
"I want to assure you that the British government's determination to protect this right is as strong today as it was 25 years ago," Blair said during his Christmas Day address.
No one believes the two countries are headed for another war. Even so, Britain maintains a defensive military presence of about 1,800 personnel on the island to protect a population that numbers only about 3,000.
Residents of the barren islands have lived for years off agriculture and fishing. English is spoken, telephone booths are red and pubs have names such as the Globe Tavern. There are regular flights to London but none to Argentina; Kirchner banned charter flights shortly after taking office.
"When you come here, it's literally as if you've arrived in a little piece of Britain," said Jenny Cockwell, editor of the Penguin News weekly newspaper in Port Stanley. Cockwell said the islanders like it that way. She guessed that if a vote were taken, "about 0.01 percent" would support negotiations that could result in Argentina gaining territorial rights.
"Why? Well, where should I begin?" she said. "For a start, Argentina can't even sort out its own affairs, let alone ours. They're so rich in natural resources, they should be one of the strongest countries in the world. But instead they have all manner of problems."
The Falklands also can boast natural resources, thanks mostly to the chilly South Atlantic waters that surround them. Since the war, squid fishing has boomed, and oil companies are hopeful that offshore drilling could prove lucrative. The islands' per capita income is higher than that of any South American nation.
The economic potential has played a big role in ratcheting up tensions. Argentina repeatedly has protested Britain's fishing and oil prospecting activities around the islands, and it sharply criticized the Falklands government when it extended local fishing permits to 25 years.
With the anniversary approaching, Argentina is hoping that the rare spotlight on the islands will bolster support for its cause.
Carol Thatcher, the daughter of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, arrived in Argentina last month to film a documentary slated to run this spring and tentatively titled "Mummy's War."
"In the South Atlantic this is still the big story, and I think 25 years on we need to refresh our memories of the high emotions that drive the human experience of the war and its aftermath," Adam Bullmore, a producer working on the documentary for October Films, said in an e-mailed statement.
But for many here, the refresher course is unnecessary. According to local news reports, Thatcher was greeted at the airport here by a small group of Argentine veterans protesting her visit.