Argentina y las Malvinas: in search of reality

The revival of Argentina’s dispute with Britain over the south Atlantic island territory owes much to the political character of Cristina Kirchner’s government. But it also reveals the distance travelled since the war of 1982, says Celia Szusterman.

Celia Szusterman
24 March 2010

A series of events has brought the usually dormant if always sensitive issue of the south Atlantic’s Falklands/Malvinas islands (British territory, claimed by Argentina) back into the political spotlight. The decision to send an oil platform to the territory to explore under its waters provoked protests by the Buenos Aires government; the near-coincidence of a Latin American summit gave a number of regional leaders the opportunity to voice their rhetorical solidarity and opposition to “colonialism”, almost exactly twenty-eight years since the seventy-four-day war which began on 2 April 1982; and the United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s cautious expression of hope of resolution of the issues, during a visit to Buenos Aires on 1 March 2010 was widely interpreted as reopening the question of the islands’ future and thus favouring the Argentinean side.

Indeed, the Argentinean government is still enjoying the media fuss (not least in Britain) about Hillary Clinton’s statement. During a brief joint press conference with Cristina Kirchner, the Argentinean president summarised their conversation by saying that she had requested United States mediation in order to convince the United Kingdom to start negotiations on the Malvinas’ sovereignty. Hillary Clinton did not mention the topic in her own remarks,  thus prompting a British journalist to ask if Washington “would be willing to mediate between the UK and Argentina”. Clinton’s guarded answer was that “the US would like to see both countries sit down and resolve the issues between them in a peaceful and productive way”. It is worth noting that she used the term “issues”, but not the word “sovereignty”. Fisheries, oil, and conservation are all “issues”.

A legal stand

Cristina Kirchner released a presidential decree declaring that all vessels sailing towards the Malvinas/Falklands through Argentine territorial waters would have to seek permission from the Argentine government. The Argentinean historian Vicente Palermo, in an article in La Nación, described Decree 256, noted the replacement of any professional diplomatic effort by behind-the-scenes pressure, and described the result as “another link in the chain with which we are rolling up our legs” (see Vicente Palermo, “Otra cadena en nuestras piernas”, La Nación, 18 February 2010).

A report in the Spanish press on 1 March 2010 stated that the Argentine government had sent notes of protest to the Norwegian AGR Group and to the Danish Thor Shipping A/S, Dania Marien and Moller Maersk Group. The Argentine ambassador in Australia was quoted as confirming that he had sent a similar note to the Australian government because of BHP Billiton’s involvement in oil exploration around the Falklands/Malvinas (the firm has extensive investments in Argentina). 

All notes were accompanied by copies of Resolution 31/49 of the United Nations general assembly (1976), asking that both Britain and Argentina abstain from carrying out “unilateral modifications” to the situation of the islands as long as they are undertaking the “process recommended in UN resolutions, like the one encouraging both parts to a peaceful dialogue on the islands”.

Here is the crux of the matter. The view of Britain and the Falkland Islands legislative assembly (which Argentina does not recognise) is that the 1995 agreement with Argentina over oil and other areas of cooperation allowed for drilling and exploration in specified areas. Néstor Kirchner may have ceased formally to cooperate with this agreement in March 2007; but this does not preclude the islanders, with UK acquiescence, from exploring and drilling. This is what the agreement of 1995 was all about. The accusation of “acting unilaterally” goes both ways.

A cause unwon

Insofar as it is possible to guess at Argentina’s strategy, this is to hinder and ultimately prevent the development of the islands, and so force them, defeated and humiliated, to beg the UK to hand over (the only acceptable outcome of any negotiation from the Argentine point of view) sovereignty to their “rightful owners” (as opposed to “anachronistic colonialist usurpers”).

This misses the reality that public opinion - on both sides - has moved on somewhat since 1982. In the case of Britain, some opinion-formers have written in favour of negotiations over sovereignty; they include Simon Jenkins (“The Falklands can no longer remain as Britain's expensive nuisance”, Guardian, 25 February 2010) and Matthew Parris (“Think of Hong Kong. Give the Falklands back”, Times, 27 February 2010). In the case of Argentina, although there is still too much silence, the fact that Vicente Palermo’s views were published in La Nacion without resulting in accusations of  treason against him, is a further indicator that perceptions may have shifted (see Vicente Palermo, Sal en las heridas: Las Malvinas en la cultura argentina contemporánea [Sudamericana, 2007]).

Palermo himself argues that the change in public opinion in Argentina leaves three main blocks of sentiment: those who believe that the islands will never be recovered, so why bother trying; those moved by pragmatism; and those who perhaps prioritise values removed from any form of stubborn territorial nationalism. These changes, Palermo argues, render Argentineans open to “innovative and original” proposals to solve the conflict (see Justin Vogler, "Argentina and Britain: the lessons of war", 3 April 2007).

Palermo outlines the self-inflicted costs to Argentina of the Kirchners’ approach, or their “nastiness offensive”, in contrast to former foreign minister Guido di Tella’s “charm offensive”. The first and heavier cost, is the resulting antagonism of the inhabitants of the islands. Where Di Tella understood that the damage inflicted by the 1982 military occupation would require years to heal, the hostility of the Kirchners plays straight into the hands of the most curmudgeonly islanders, thus undoing all the trust-building and good-neighbourly approach of the 1990s (see Fred Halliday, “The Malvinas and Afghanistan: unburied ghosts”, 3 May 2007).

The Kirchners thus continue to ignore the islanders, their views and their oft-repeated wish to remain British. In the process, they make the objective of “recovering the Malvinas” impossible to attain - while simultaneously using it as proof of Britain’s last and absurd colonial dream. In today’s world, to act in total disregard for the views of the inhabitants of a territory - even to ignore their very existence - is something that very few governments dare do without arousing criticism from most of the world.

It is peculiar then that during a meeting of South American and Arab presidents, Mrs Kirchner drew a parallel between the situation in Palestine and in the Malvinas/Falklands. She was referring to the fact that both Israel and the UK ignore statements of the United Nations general assembly. In fact, if the situations have got anything in common (which they don’t) it could be argue that it is Argentina that holds the most objectionable role, by behaving without any regard for the views of the inhabitants of the territory under dispute. Moreover, it may be worth recalling that all UN resolutions on the islands have been issued by the general assembly, and none by the Security Council (whose resolutions are binding). 

The long-term interests of Argentina require a return to the principles on which Di Tella’s charm-offensive were based: accept that there are different viewpoints on the issue of “property” over the islands, and - as civilised, tolerant, respectful peoples - resume talks over areas of common and urgent interest (such as fisheries, tourism, air links, scientific research, conservation and oil exploration/drilling); all this while taking into account the interests and lifestyles of all the peoples concerned. Indeed, such an approach could be extended to all the countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region (see Ivan Briscoe, “Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on” (1 April 2007).

It is a mistake to believe that Mrs Kirchner has “now”  embraced the causa Malvinas in order to counteract her rock-bottom opinion-poll ratings. These are not the result of a “plot” by the “oligarchy”, “the media”, the “judicial party”, the opposition - as the conspiratorial mindset of many of her acolytes suggests - but of her incompetent management of the res publica (see “Argentina's broken polity” (13 July 2009).

When finally confronted with the reality of a congress in which the Kirchners no longer hold a majority as a result of the elections of 28 June 2009, their reaction was not to seek agreements with the opposition but rather to raise the level of confrontation. Inflation has continued to creep (private estimates place it at around 25%), capital-flight has once again increased, and poverty has grown to the 1990s average of 35%. Yet the causa Malvinas remains an all-party, all-sectors issue (see "Argentina's mirror: the causa Malvinas", 3 April 2007). Indeed, opponents of the government still believe that the way Mrs Kirchner is tackling the current problem of oil-exploration is the correct way to proceed. If anything, there have been criticisms of Mrs Kirchner for not having done more and earlier than waiting for the Ocean Guardian  floating-platform to reach disputed waters.

A real dialogue

What the opposition does not seem to have realised, since the topic was never raised in congress, is that neither of the Kirchners has a foreign policy that can be described as such. In the case of Britain, this is revealed by the fact that no Argentine ambassador has been accredited to London since July 2008. Only at the end of 2009 was the name of José Nun, a former culture secretary under Néstor Kirchner, mentioned. His credentials are awaiting ratification by the senate. However, José Nun, a sociologist, is neither a career diplomat nor an expert on the Falklands/Malvinas topic. It is paradoxical to say the least, to hear Cristina Kirchner demand a dialogue with London when almost daily they show in Argentina that “dialogue”, “negotiation”, “agreement” are words that hardly figure in the Kirchners’ vocabulary (see "Argentina's new president: Kirchner after Kirchner", 29 October 2007).

In mid-March 2010 the Argentine press reported that when Néstor Kirchner heard that the president of the senate, one of the Kirchners’ own men, had declared that “government and opposition should find a forum for a dialogue” (he was referring to the dispute over the use of central-bank reserves to finance current spending), Kirchner interpreted this as “treason” and exploded in fury.

Néstor Kirchner’s peculiar interpretation of what constitutes a “dialogue” is obvious from the last paragraph of the 27 March 2007 note sent to the British government formally ending all cooperation on hydrocarbons. It states that the British government may regard the areas of cooperation as steps in a process aimed at maintaining good relations; but until the day arrives to talk about sovereignty, the cooperation of Argentina’s government was only meaningful if it led to “pertinent negotiations”.

The text states:

“Argentina is not against cooperating with the UK […] but only if such cooperation will contribute to create the necessary conditions  to restart the dialogue to solve the controversy over sovereignty and in this way end, in a peaceful and lasting way, this anachronistic colonial dispute.”

Richard Rorty believed that “democracy is conversation”. For there to be a conversation, it is necessary to listen, not just to talk. No lasting solution will be achieved until Argentina accepts that the islanders are legitimate interlocutors in any negotiations about their own future; and until the islanders in turn lose their fear, dread and hatred of all things Argentine.

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