ARGENTINA HAS BECOME the latest victim of the "banana republic" syndrome, and as a naturalized American of Argentine extraction, I am ready to yell out, "Basta!" For you Yankees, that means "Enough!"
At long last the Argentine military has deployed its troops against foreign occupiers rather than unarmed citizens of its own country, the way it usually does. Yet to take American commentators at their word, one would think that the fair Britannia was a vestal virgin whose flower has just been lost to savage rapists.
In fact, Argentina's claim to the Malvinas archipelago (which Americans with little sense of fair play call the "Falklands"), is not only just, but has remained unsettled by a long-standing British diplomatic filibuster. This goes back a long way before the undeniably gross violations of human rights by the current regime in Buenos Aires.
Americans, as with most third parties whose assistance was not requested, are likely to suffer much unneeded vituperation from both sides in the dispute if they try to rescue Albion's empire from the dustbin of history where it belongs. From the British, those sterling human rights advocates who are the architects of Ulster, the United States can expect little gratitude for not joining in the fray. From Argentina, and other Latin countries, there is likely to be quite a furor over any sight of support for an extracontinental power.
To claim that language, culture and history necessarily bind the United States with the United Kingdom is merely adding insult to injury. I believe that the millions of Italians, Poles, blacks and especially Hispanics in this country have as much right to be counted when it comes to cultural links to a mother country as do the descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims.
For that matter, Americans conveniently forget that Argentina has learned a lot of what it knows about attempts to take this hemisphere's land away from the British from the United States. Without even mentioning the Revolution, one can point to parallels between the Malvinas campaign and American attempts to wrest Canada away from the British in the opening shots of the War of 1812, and the attempt to take British Columbia away from them under the slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" in the 1840s. (For that matter, we will also not mention the way the United States acquired what is now everything from California to Texas from Mexico.)
Indeed, Ronald Reagan cannot have it both ways and remain above the issue, for he cannot berate Argentina for its grain trade with the Soviet Union, as some liberals have, and then remain unmoved by Argentina looking down the barrel of British gunboat diplomacy. I hate to open up a can of worms, but to Argentine eyes, John Bull is a much greater and long-hated foe than even the dread Russian bear or for that matter the Nazis.
To understand just what this means requires grasping the psychology and lore surrounding the role of Britain in Argentina, one that might be compared to that in India, Ireland or even the Thirteen Colonies.
It is little known in the Northern Hemisphere, where the English long view of history has prevailed, that Britain treated Argentina as a virtual cultural and economic colony from the early 19th century to World War II. The legacy of British dominance lives on today in a number of ways. One of them is the self-perception of the middle and upper- classes of Argentina.
"Argentines are Italians who speak Spanish and think they're British," remarked Argentine-born Alejandro Orfila, secretary general of the Organization of American States, in a cocktail conversation. The statement reflects the sentiment of much of his country's educated class, whose children attend English schools geared to the British university curriculum, and whose elegant matrons shop at the Buenos Aires branch of Harrod's.
On the other end of the spectrum is the lunch-pail blue-collar crowd whose patriotic feelings are expressed concretely in the glorification of mat,e, the Argentine tea drink, in the nationalistic, almost xenophobic slogan Mat,e S,i, Whiskey No!
My grandfather Luis, once a grain inspector for an export company, would echo the latter sentiment as he recalled how English trainees who worked under him were given special salaries and benefits "befitting English gentlemen," over and above the pay scale for the locals.
My late father grew up in the port city of Bahia Blanca during the turbulent 1930s and '40s, and once amused two British visitors by recalling how in his day the political campus bonfire was stoked not by the Stars and Stripes but by the Union Jack. For the past 20 years or so, it is his generation which has circulated around the revolving door of political power in Argentina.
To that generation, as to those older and younger in Argentina, anti-British nationalism is the only reaction to a long tally of grievances against the once imperious British lion.
From the very beginning of Argentine history, Britain tried to meddle in, conquer and subdue Argentina. In 1806 and 1808, attempts were made to take Buenos Aires by force. And in a museum not far from the tomb of national hero Jos,e de San Mart,in hang two tattered regimental colors of the British armed forces. They were never taken by Napoleon, but won by the women of Buenos Aires who poured scalding water from their rooftops on the English invaders.
In 1833, the British took over the Malvinas. The islands were not settled quietly by a peace-loving band of English shepherds, as perhaps some might dare claim today. Instead, they were taken by force as part of a global design to control the major chokepoints of the then prevailing international sea lanes. Similarly, Capetown, Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Singapore became part of a string of monitoring outposts for 19th-century British naval power. All the countries thus aggrieved still hold claims which the British routinely circumvent. Thus, aggression ruled the waves.
Much the same way as the CIA is credited with a "secret war" or two in the Third World, there is a considerable body of opinion in Argentina that Britain, in defense of its textile interests, was a prime mover in having Argentina start an 1860s war with Paraquay that liquidated that tiny country's looms and almost all of its male population.
From the late 19th century to the 1950s, British companies owned the railroads of Argentina. The country is still saddled with a system built with foreign priorities in mind. Rather than connect a series of main cities in a web, the British-built railroad system is shaped in the form of an octopus, with its head in Buenos Aires, the port city from which the British could export Argentine products at their own prices.
It should surprise few that in view of a longstanding enmity toward Britain, Argentina's neutrality in World War II, much like Ireland's, contained considerable sympathy for the Axis. It may seem obsessive, but it is a fact that the very powerful desire for revenge against Britain, and to a much lesser extent anti-Semitism, made even such madness as Nazism seem preferable to another round of subjugation under the British lion.
A similar strain in the Argentine psyche allowed the demagogic but immensely popular Juan Per,on to nationalize the British railroads in the early 1950s, even when by so doing he bequeathed to the nation an obsolete system the British were due to refurbish. This quixotic but understandable act kept Argentina looking like the set of a 1930s movie until the 1970s.
Today, the ultra-right wing of the Argentine military has suddenly won over support for another act of vindication from the most unlikely political parties and trade unions. The issue simply transcends left or right in Argentina.
In this, Argentina is not unique. It is intensely amusing to me, having known and shared a basic allegiance to social and economic democracy with English leftists, to find the Labor Party hacks shouting out the most jingoistic line they can possibly imagine in order to outbid the Tories.
All of this is not to suggest that war must be the inevitable outcome. Even the hawkish Gen. Alfredo Saint-Jean, who could probably be classed as politically to the right of the Sun King, is stating that Argentina will negotiate anything but sovereignty. That does not sound terribly unreasonable. I wonder how many Americans would be moderate enough to be willing to discuss control by the Soviet Union of the Virgin Islands, so long as titular sovereignty were maintained.
Yet every time an American opens his or her mouth to point out how "civilized" the historically rapacious British are, the chances of forcing the British to take a long hard look at their record and their actual rights in the Malvinas diminish. Peace without justice is only subjugation by another name. Not even a so-called banana republic should have to put up with that.