Constantino Davidoff didn't mean to start a war. He just wanted to make a few pesos.
"I am a businessman, that is all," he said. "But one thing is certain. If I had never been born, Argentina and Great Britain would not be fighting."
Davidoff, 39, is a scrap metal dealer, a short friendly man, born here of a Bulgarian father and a Greek mother. It was his idea to mount a salvage operation at an abandoned whaling station in the South Georgia Islands, and it was his crew that, for reasons he can't quite understand, raised an Argentine flag at the station, angering the British government, which in turn offended the Argentine government, thereby creating an international case of ruffled feathers that developed into a war.
When the bullets stop flying in the battle over the Falklands, the story of Davidoff and his salvage workers will be remembered as one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of international relations.
Davidoff himself is perplexed. Sitting in the somewhat shabby three-room office of his Islas Georgias Co. Tuesday, he shuffled through a pile of official papers, thumping his forefinger insistently on the round seals that read "received by British Embassy."
The seals make an important point. The furious diplomatic fencing that took place in mid-March between Britain and Argentina began with a British communique complaining that Davidoff's workers had landed "illegally" on the remote mountainous islands "without having obtained the necessary clearance from British authorities."
In fact, the British consulate here had known of the expedition for more than a year, had authorized it and had acknowledged receipts of the names of the crew, according to Davidoff's documents.
Today, Davidoff sits close to his transistor radio, hoping to hear some news of his 39 crew members, captured by the British. "They were supposed to be delivered to Montevideo--that's what I heard on the radio," he said.
From conversations with Davidoff, other Argentines and diplomats here, the picture that emerges of the events leading up to the April 2 invasion of the Falklands would make a perfect plot for a comic opera--except that, because of bureaucratic foul-ups and a series of misunderstandings, a war was touched off, hundreds of men have died, and the nations of the world are in an uproar.
To be sure, the climate for conflict was heating up this spring. The Argentine military junta, unbeknownst to the Argentine Foreign Ministry, was looking for an excuse to "retake" the Falklands, which Britain had seized 149 years ago. "I was the drop of water that made the glass overflow," said Davidoff, shaking his head. As one diplomat here put it, "An opportunity came along, and Argentina took it."
As pieced together here, the plot unfolded thus:
In 1976, Davidoff, who has made a living recovering telegraph cables off the ocean floor and selling them for scrap metal, heard about three whaling stations on the Georgia Islands that were abandoned in 1964. He thought he could make some money buying the stations and shipping their contents--including whaling vessels, floating docks, boat-repair equipment and machinery used to process whale oil--to Argentina for resale.
"I like to do unusual things," said Davidoff.
In September 1979 he signed an option for the three stations--at Leith Harbour, Stromness and Husvik--with the owner, an Edinburgh company called Christian Salverson Ltd.
In December 1981, Davidoff and seven associates, after receiving permission from the British, sailed to the South Georgias for a few days to inspect the stations. "It was very routine," he said. "The British told me to let them know when I wanted to go again, on what boat, with how many people and the date of arrival."
On March 9, Davidoff gave the information to British consul David Joy and sent off his crew to the islands.
Upon arriving March 19, the workers raised a blue-and-white Argentine flag over their salvage operation, in what was either a prank or the kind of patriotic gesture a boy scout troop might undertake in the wilderness.
The flag was spotted by a group of British Arctic researchers, camped about five miles across the bay at Grytviken. The researchers, according to one diplomat, "grabbed their ham radio and called to London, 'By God, the Argies have landed!'"
In the Falklands, 800 miles to the west, a group of islanders broke into Argentina's national airlines office at Stanley, decorating it with a Union Jack and the message "tit for tat," inscribed with toothpaste.
On March 22, the British Foreign Office protested to the Argentine government that the crew had landed illegally.
The Argentine Foreign Ministry replied that the merchant marine ship that had brought Davidoff's crew was "fulfilling a commercial transport contract for a private business concern."
However, when Britain reported on March 24 that the Royal Navy ice patrol ship Endurance and a party of British Marines had been dispatched to the South Georgias to deal with the scrap workers, Argentina responded by sending its own Navy ship to "protect" the crew from forcible removal.
Frantic meetings took place between the British, who insisted that Davidoff's workers should have stopped in the Falklands to have their entry cards stamped, and the Argentines, who insisted that the workers were legally going about their business.
As the quarrel grew more heated, Argentina sent five more warships. Britain dispatched another vessel, the John Biscoe, and another party of Marines. At some point during those final days in March, Argentina asserted that not only had the scrap workers obtained adequate documents, but that since the South Georgias were a dependency of the Falklands, long claimed by Argentina, the Davidoff crew was, in fact, on Argentine soil.
By that time, the invasion forces were on their way. Argentina captured the South Georgias on April 3, a day after it took the Falklands. The British fleet has since recaptured the South Georgias and has moved against Argentine forces in the Falklands.
Davidoff blames the war on the British. "Why should they have sent a warship, the Endurance, to take our men away?" he asks. "That was ridiculous. What if I went to North America and raised an Argentine flag? They would just take it down and say I was nuts."
Davidoff said he borrowed $2.5 million to finance his scrap business over the last six years in hopes of earning more than $10 million. "I have a mountain of debts, and no recourse," he said. "This is going to ruin me."
To complicate matters, stories are circulating in this city, where rumor and paranoia are constant companions, that the Davidoff incident was a deliberate plot by the junta to start the war. "It is too curious," says Maximo Gainza, publisher of La Prensa, a prestigious newspaper here.
"What would Davidoff want with those sheds and huts? . . . The military needed something to provoke the British. It must have been planned a long time ahead."
Davidoff, when told of the plot theory, got angry. "I'd like to know who said that," he said. "I'd take them by the collar and throw them out the window. I am not a politician, I do not work for the state."