Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on

Ivan Briscoe
1 April 2007

The story of how Argentineans have responded to defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands war of 1982 contains a quarter-century of contradictions, says Ivan Briscoe.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who had been raised to admire gauchos and English gentlemen in equal measure, was gravely aggrieved by the sight of his two favourite nations at war in the south Atlantic. "Two bald men fighting over a comb", was his bitter putdown. On the other side of the ocean, the fictional adolescent diarist Adrian Mole finally found the Falkland Islands on his world map, but only after he'd scraped off "a crumb of fruitcake".

Twenty-five years on from the Argentine "invasion" of the islands - every term is loaded one side or other in this conflict - the crowd fever in Buenos Aires, portside flag-waving in Britain and the vocabulary of Harriers, Exocets and Super Etendards are hard to recall without a tinge of pain and absurdity. The military and emotional arsenal awoken on both sides, not to mention the 904 dead, dwarfs the significance of the territory at stake - islands that Britain has been considering giving away (it might have done so in 1980 but for the islanders' resistance), and which would have added only a tiny fraction to Argentina's vast, unoccupied Patagonia.

Also in openDemocracy:

Anthony Barnett, "Churchillism: from Thatcher and the Falklands to Blair and Iraq" (30 March 2007)

For Max Hastings, the Daily Telegraph's correspondent during the war of April-June 1982, the British illusion that the Falklands played some vital strategic role has long vanished. No one but the 2,500 islanders particularly cares any more. And for their pains, any islander needing serious hospital treatment must fly some eighteen hours to Brize Norton air base in Oxfordshire, instead of three to the odious "mainland."

Plainly futile, ridiculously overwrought, the twelve-week battle now appears to linger in a lost world of uniformed order. Its core dispute - rival sovereignty claims dating from the dog-days of Spain's empire - was fought over with honour and utter respect for civilian life. Veterans of the conflict met sixteen years later, during former Argentine president Carlos Menem's visit to St Paul's Cathedral, and congratulated each other on their bravery and hardships. Against the existential wrath of Islamists, or the implosions of west Africa, this was a relic of the 19th century, and perhaps the last war that von Clausewitz would recognise. Surrenders were signed on long wooden tables. The defeated lay down their arms, and tucked into the victors' bully-beef.

Meanwhile, the two home fronts effervesced in pangs of national glory, all too happy to be puppets on their rulers' strings. Margaret Thatcher harvested the success of her 110-ship task-force in the June 1983 elections, vindicating her intuitive distrust of the foreign office and of Tory "wets" in general. Argentina, by contrast, lived through a political spasm, brutally switching in the space of months from popular rebellion to patriotic fervour to self-loathing. Whereas bunting-decked Britain relived the 1900 relief of Mafeking during the South Africa wars, Argentina stared a huge manipulative farce in the face. The disgraceful truths of the dictatorship finally emerged: 30,000 disappeared, $40 billion of foreign debt, banishment from the club of the west.

Victory and amnesia

The story of how Argentina dealt and continues to deal with defeat in the Malvinas is plagued by contradictions. On the face of it, the country might have been pleased to see the end of whisky-sodden Leopoldo Galtieri, heir to the most savaged junta leaders - the worst of whom, Emilio Massera, was arrested in 1983 for drowning his lover's husband. At long last, the authentic cowardice and ineptitude of the military strongmen was exposed to everyone. Infamously, the naval captain Alfredo Astiz, who infiltrated the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in 1977 and thereby sent twelve middle-aged women and nuns to their death by drowning in the Atlantic, surrendered South Georgia without firing a shot. As in Anastasio Somoza's Nicaragua after the terrible 1972 earthquake, corrupt handling of the foodstuffs collected for young conscripts serving on the Malvinas was rife. One story from wartime, possibly an urban legend, tells that a letter to a soldier was found inside a chocolate bar bought in Buenos Aires.

Rumblings of war had been heard in the city for years, generating something of a panic in James Callaghan's British government in 1976. Yet it was the first sign of mass public discontent with the dictatorship - a trade union-led demonstration on 30 March 1982 over the dictatorship's economic policy and failure to call elections - that forced the junta's hand. Unelected, worn down by its killing spree, the only form of legitimation left was spectacle, or the "power of representation" as the author César Aira has called it. The model was the 1978 soccer world cup, where a classy Argentine side featuring striker Mario "the Killer" Kempes received the winner's trophy from General Jorge Rafael Videla.

The euphoria that followed this victory proved how heartstring nationalism could engender overpowering amnesia. For decades, Argentineans has been trained by their leaders in the thrall of the patria. Indeed the diplomatic expert Carlos Escudé has argued that from the early 20th century onwards, when over half the population of the capital was foreign-born, the country's leaders engaged in a systematic effort to breed over-emotional nationalists, for whom the Malvinas redemption became a benchmark of identity.

"In the soldier the child sees the incarnation of the Fatherland.... The sounds executed by a military band reach the ears of the child as a fantastic and fascinating language", reads part of the sweeping 1908 "patriotic education" reform.

As a nation with a much longer history, Britain's manifesto of pride, like its constitution, is as rigid as it is implicit. For Argentines, the sense of being a great nation of European descent coexisted with shrill jingoism; battle with the empire signified equality with it. And it was into this pot of passion, thwarted freedoms and lingering dictatorial violence that the drunk general dipped.

Ivan Briscoe is senior researcher at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), Madrid. He was previously editor of the English edition of El País newspaper in Madrid and also worked for the Buenos Aires Herald, the UNESCO Courier and in the field of development research.

His analysis of Latin America on openDemocracy includes:

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve"
(17 April 2003)

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (30 July 2003)

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell"
(25 May 2005)

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America"
(18 October 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(10 February 2006)

"Latin America's new left: dictators or democrats?"
(28 September 2006)

"Evo Morales: the unauthorised version"
(16 January 2007)

"A ship with no anchor: Bush in Latin America" (22 March 2007)

The return of history

Néstor Kirchner, the current Argentine president, will not himself attend the anniversary of the invasion in Tierra del Fuego, but in other respects he has sustained a rhetorical pitch over the Malvinas issue. 

In may seem unlikely. Since coming to power in May 2003, Kirchner has made redress for the victims of the dictatorship - among whom he counts himself - a defining political goal; on 24 March 2007, the thirty-first anniversary of the military coup, he demanded before a rain-drenched crowd "trial and punishment, we need the trials to speed up." It could perhaps be expected, then, that like the Radical government of Raúl Alfonsín, elected in 1983, he would regard the claim to the Malvinas as a feeble power-ploy, and the last crime of the junta.

Far from it. Argentina's claim to the islands, he declared on 2 April 2006, is "permanent and cannot be renounced." Over the last year, during which two trials have witnessed the first sentences for "dirty war" operatives since the mid-1980s, his government has ratcheted up the diplomatic tension. His foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, has recruited support from a host of other Latin American nations for the claim. A new fishing regulation could prohibit boats with licenses for the Malvinas from trawling Argentine waters - an important fact given that a large part of the islanders' revenue comes from these fishing licenses. On 28 March, Taiana announced that a 1995 accord with Britain on joint oil exploration would also be ripped up.

It is highly improbable that Argentina will go to war again over the islands, even were Britain's 1,200-troop garrison to be whittled down. Kirchner's own proclivity for incendiary rhetoric against all sorts of public enemies - the key to his political career - is clearly motivating his crusade. But there is somewhat more than rabble-rousing in it. The predecessor he despises, fellow-Peronist Carlos Menem, did much to "normalise" relations with Britain: diplomatic ties were restored in 1990, "carnal relations" were pursued with the United States, and flights to the islands with a stopover in Argentina (though leaving from Chile, Britain's key ally in the war) were resumed in 1999. Much that the dictatorship had despoiled, in other words, Menem repaired.

Yet the good behaviour that Menem exhibited abroad - and Queen Elizabeth II was said to be particularly taken by his gift of a woollen poncho - was betrayed back home. The crisis of 2001 was in essence the collateral damage of his government's endeavour, supported by the Argentine public, to insert his country once again into a rich, consumerist, dollarised west. Kirchner has ended that adventure: the devalued peso has been the crux of his economic policy. But his government, or so he maintains, at least respects its citizens' basic needs.

Likewise with the Malvinas claim. The drum of war, worn from over-use, will not win elections any more; the bid to be an equal partner in the rich world has faded. And yet the death of 649 Argentines in the conflict remains a potent source of identity, and a symbol of the integrity of the people against manipulation by their rulers. Sadistic senior officers and starved conscripts appear throughout Tristán Bauer's excellent 2005 Malvinas war movie Iluminados por el Fuego (Enlightened by Fire), yet the film makes clear its own support for a sovereignty claim marked in teenagers' blood.

The logic of the new Latin American populists - the making of a bridge from leader to people, a brooding mistrust of the rich north - depends on symbols such as these. It is a political relationship filled as ever with lapses and non sequiturs: this self-same Argentine public, for instance, treated the 15,000 war veterans with tremendous disdain on their return, with "ex-combatants thought of as mini-Galtieris and marginalised" according to Edgardo Esteban, the author of Iluminados. Around 500 have committed suicide since the war; over 80% are reported to depend on medication.

Even so, the deaths on Goose Green or the sailors swallowed by the water around the sinking Belgrano offer potent images of Argentine sacrifice. Whereas the British rediscovered their dormant military panache, paving the road to Iraq, the Argentineans unearthed a people's cause in the generals' propaganda war.

None of which, incidentally, goes far toward resolving the absurdity of the war over a comb. For in many wars, the best claim to the islands in fact resides with the French. And rather than haggling over whether to say "Falklands" or "Malvinas", we might as well return to the real roots, to the boat that left the Bréton port of Saint-Malo in 1764, carrying the very first Malouines.

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