Argentina's mirror: the causa Malvinas

Celia Szusterman
3 April 2007

2 April 2007 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. With the exception of 3,000 Falkland Islanders, 40 million Argentines and some thousands of Britons, arguably the rest of the world continues to be bemused by the whole issue. What is it exactly that we are remembering this week and for the duration of the seventy-four-day war: a tragic and unnecessary conflict, the justified redemption of national territory, a violation of international law by an illegitimate government, the cleansing of a "dirty war" by a "just war"?

The answer clearly depends on who the "we" refers to. In its official guise, Britain is commemorating the invasion of one of its overseas dependent territories by an Argentine military junta led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, and the decision by Margaret Thatcher to send a task force to uphold its rights and the entrenched principles of international law that disputes should not be settled by force.

For Argentina - officials, people and the wider society - what is being commemorated is far less clear. Indeed, for many years after the return to civilian and democratic rule in the aftermath of the war in 1983, 2 April 1982 was quietly ignored; governments preferred to mark 10 June - "Malvinas Day" - the anniversary of the date in 1833 when the British announced their intention to remain on the windswept islands evermore by peremptorily returning the few score Argentineans who had settled there to the mainland.

It was striking then, that in 2002, on the twentieth anniversary of the conflict - at the deepest point of Argentina's economic collapse - provisional president Eduardo Duhalde decided to declare 2 April a national holiday. It seemed then that Argentina's ambiguity vis-à-vis the junta's decision to invade was no more. The military may have been irresponsible, incompetent, and acting illegally, but the installation of the holiday suggested that the "cause" remained a just one; that the deeper meaning of the "recovery" of the islands should not be lost.

Argentina, after all, had not been the aggressor. The occupation of the islands by military force had been in fact a perfectly defensive act, after 149 years of "usurpation" by Britain. A young, vigorous nation showed the world that it was moved by honour, in contrast to the decadent, anachronistic former colonial power which was only moved by material interests. In this way, the just "cause" was separated from the incompetent "war".

Celia Szusterman is senior lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Westminster and an associate fellow at Chatham House

Also by Celia Szusterman in openDemocracy:

"Argentina: the state we're in"
(26 October 2005)

"Latin America's eroding democracy: the view from Argentina"
(1 June 2006)

The national trinity

A new book by the Argentinean political scientist Vicente Palermo - Sal en las heridas: Las Malvinas en la cultura argentina contemporánea (Sudamericana, 2007) - directly addresses this potent act of historical reclamation. Palermo sets himself the unrewarding task of disentangling the Malvinas "war" from the Malvinas "cause". In order to do this, he embarks on a voyage of exploration and diagnosis of the constituent parts of Argentine nationalism. His normative aim is to propose an alternative approach and set of policies which could help resolve the outstanding dispute.

At least one part of Palermo's brave attempt is already doomed. The announcement by Argentina's government on 28 March 2007 that it was formally severing the 1995 agreement with Britain to share oil exploration in the seas surrounding the islands confirms what was already known, that the agreement has been effectively dead since 2001. More broadly, the fact that Argentina's foreign minister Jorge Taiana chose to make the decision public only days ahead of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the illegal occupation signals the return of the "causa Malvinas" as a source of point-scoring in domestic politics.

The rest of the world may shrug its shoulders and wonder what all the fuss is about. For the more curious, Vicente Palermo offers a persuasive account of the resonance of the causa. In this he follows the groundbreaking article on the twentieth anniversary in 2002 by historian Luis Alberto Romero (Malvinas, 20 años después [La Nación]), which traced the roots of the "cause" to the hopeless attempts of several versions of Argentine nationalism to articulate an "Argentine identity".

Palermo presents a detailed and extensively supported account of the ways in which the Malvinas issue was transformed into a cause by the different versions of Argentine nationalism: liberal, revisionist, populist, elitist, democratic, Catholic, reactionary, Marxist and anti-imperialist. The main components are unanimismo (unanimity), decadentismo (decadentism), and territorialism.

The transformation works like this. The quest for unanimity, which should crystallise in a "national project", leads in turn to intolerance. The historical view of Argentina's decadence - summed up in the phrase "we are a great nation, with a brilliant future behind us" - leads to the sense of victimhood. Somehow, our decadence is the result either of domination by foreign interests (i.e. Britain in the 1880-1930 period), or of the adoption of policies alien to us (i.e. neo-liberalism in the 1990s, as expressed by President Kirchner to the United Nations general assembly in September 2003).

Luis Alberto Romero argued that none of the available components of a national identity as defined in the western world were able to provide a satisfactory definition in the Argentine case: there was no homogeneous race or ethnicity in a country peopled by European immigrants; the Spanish language did not distinguish us from our neighbours; Catholicism, the official religion, left too many people out; while competing versions of our history - especially over the significance of post-independence 19th-century events - divided people into camps ("liberals" vs "revisionists") as far apart as ethnicities at war.

openDemocracy authors analyse the layers of the Argentinean onion:

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

Michele Wucker, "Argentina and the IMF: will they benefit from hindsight? "
(4 September 2003)

Mariano Aguirre, "The many cities of Buenos Aires"
(16 February 2005)

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

Horacio Verbitsky, "Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the dirty war" (28 July 2005)

Carlos Forment, "The democratic dribble: Buenos Aires's politics of football"
(16 June 2006)

In this situation, the only feature that could unite such diversity was the third feature of the above trinity: territory, and a "national cause" around which to mobilise "territorialist" sentiment. Thus the belief took root that land - all of it, every single piece that had made up the Spanish Viceroyalty of the River Plate - was "Argentine". The loss of any fraction of that land (as had happened when Bolivia and Uruguay followed an independent path) meant the impossibility of having a full identity. Both Romero and Vicente Palermo make this point: the territorial dimension is at the heart of Argentina's spurious nationalism.

The causa Malvinas represents these feelings almost to perfection: once we recover what has been taken from us illegally, we shall be able to recover our lost greatness, lift our heads proudly, confront the powerful - and with the islands, regain our lost dignity. Las Malvinas son Argentinas is, in this mindset, the rallying-cry that defines "Argentine-ness".

Palermo traces the intricate yet surprisingly linear route followed by these historical obsessions: from the original protests back in 1833, through Perón's decision in 1946 to extend by decree the territory of Argentina to cover an extra one million square kilometres (which incorporated overnight the Falklands archipelago, but also South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, as well as a huge chunk of the Antarctic in which both Chile and Britain had, and still have, scientific outposts). After that, nothing much happened until 16 December 1965 when the government of Argentina succeeded in convincing the UN general assembly to pass Resolution 2065 (XX) asking Argentina and Britain to start negotiations over the Falkland/Malvinas islands. The vote was ninety-four in favour, with fourteen abstentions; not even Britain voted against.

The other side of the cause

What next? One of the more deeply rooted myths surrounding la causa is that "nothing happened between 1965 and 1982", leading to a quite "reasonable" deepening of Argentina's grievance and a sense of frustration at such flagrant unfairness. All the while, the narrative goes, Argentina was patiently enduring (again the sense of victimhood) the arrogance of the last vestiges of colonialism; while in a contemptible show of imperial hauteur, Britain consistently refused to discuss the dispute.

Yet Palermo reviews in detail the work of Peter Beck and Lawrence Freedman, which traces successive attempts from within the foreign office - in 1967-68 (led by foreign ministers Michael Stewart and Lord Chalfont), 1971, 1974, 1977 (David Owen), 1979-80 (the hapless Nicholas Ridley), as well as the Shackleton report of 1977 - to trigger a debate in cabinet, in parliament, and in the foreign office itself on the Falkland Islands' future. Many possible solutions to the islands' contested sovereignty were explored and aired: condominium, shared sovereignty, leaseback...

Indeed, as a consequence of Resolution 2065, Britain had started work on a conditioned transfer of sovereignty. One of the conditions was that the interests of the islanders should be guaranteed, a message transmitted to Argentina in 1967. As soon as the "Falklands lobby" hears of it, parliament is informed, and opposition to the proposal is mobilised. Argentina interprets this as the actions of "a small group of people defending an anachronistic colonial situation".

What this long process reveals is that at the centre of British governments of varying political colours in the 1960s and 1970s there existed different viewpoints, contradictory preferences, and even differences in the appraisal of the importance given to the issue. The "irreducible colonialism" misleadingly attributed to Britain by Argentina is notable by its absence.

Also in openDemocracy:

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

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on"
(2 April 2007)

Justin Vogler, "Argentina and Britain: the lessons of war" (3 April 2007)

The reward of failure

By 1982, the military government that had ousted the government of Isabel Perón in March 1976 was led by Leopoldo Galtieri. It was a regime desperate to stop its runaway decline, fragmentation and deterioration. What better way than to revive the causa Malvinas with a daring move that decadent Britain would be forced impotently to swallow? This was the causa in all its "redemptive" and "regenerational" force, with the additional benefit after years of ferocious military repression and torture of "redeeming" a "dirty war" with a "just" one.

Yet, even with all this in mind, Palermo argues that there was nothing inevitable about the decision to invade. He explains the trap in which the causa had placed Argentina's foreign policy and the country's insertion into the world. Once the decision had been made to pursue the issue in the United Nations, Argentina was held hostage to the inclinations of the non-aligned movement, which effectively controlled the general assembly at the time. about the decision to invade. He explains the trap in which the

The military regime's immediate reasons to invade are not difficult to understand: a combination of short-term political needs and the strength of the causa. So far, so obvious. More interesting are Palermo's attempts at disentangling the reasons why popular support for the occupation, and the subsequent war, was so undivided. His explanation is difficult to prove, but convincing to anyone who witnessed those times in Argentina.

The decline of the junta reflected arguably the lowest point in the trajectory of a society that had seemed to be losing its compass throughout the 20th century. Palermo quotes from a letter by one of the thousands of exiles from the junta's state terrorism, which reflects the devastating power of the causa: "this people [Argentines] so ill-treated, which has grown amidst discord and resentment, this people which has known nothing but frustration and aggression, today feels summoned, has accepted with ease the call of the Motherland... it has been taken out of its Purgatory and has become generous, ready to give everything for the sovereignty over some far away rocks...".

The junta crashed to defeat and humiliation within two and a half months. The result was to unleash a tide of recrimination against the incompetence, ineptitude, and irresponsible adventurism that had soiled a noble cause (in fact, what the military did, so Palermo argues, was tragically consistent with the cause). The press led the attack on the "betrayal" of the cause, and did so by the unearthing of matters until then not only taboo, but the subject of widespread denial by society: the repression, the tortures, the "disappeared". The outcome was what the timid opposition had had little chance of achieving: the collapse of the military regime.

Luis Alberto Romero responds to the rhetorical question - how many people would have justified the junta's crimes had there been a military victory in the 1982 war? (La Nación, 2 April 2004) - with a dispiriting answer: "I'm afraid very many". Those who had demonstrated against the human-rights commission of the Organisation of American States (proclaiming "Argentines are human, and they are right") suddenly discovered a new civic religion, liberal and tolerant.

Beyond the imaginary prison

Today the question remains: what is the meaning of commemorating 2 April 1982? The remalvinización of Argentine foreign policy still impedes the country's ability to come to terms with the fact that Argentina went to war, that she invaded a territory against the rules of international law, and that we embraced a military dictatorship on 3 April of that same year because it had acted "in defence of the national interest".

The problem, according to Argentina's contemporary political leadership, is that after the war, we accepted a submissive role, controlled by "outside interests", i.e. policy dictated from the United States. Until Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003, Argentina had been unable to defend what she had done, looking tall and proud. Guido Di Tella's awkwardly described "charm offensive" to recognise not just the existence of the Falkland islanders, but their wishes to remain British, was part of that ignominious desmalvinización of Argentina's foreign policy which President Kirchner hopes to set straight.

From 1983 to 2007, Argentina has been experiencing the longest period of democratic rule since independence. Military intervention in the political arena - which for most of the 20th century had become "normal" - is now inconceivable. The most courageous suggestion in Palermo's book is his plea for the construction of an alternative set of policies and narratives to the authoritarian and populist nationalism embodied in the "imaginary prison" of the causa Malvinas, this time based on what he describes as "republican patriotism": love of rights, rule of law and institutions of a liberal republic.

But for this to evolve, an enlightened political leadership is required. Palermo reproduces opinion polls that reveal how the perception of the Malvinas issue changes according to the policies being pursued. In 1984, only 25% of those asked were in favour of shared sovereignty; in the 1990s, when President Carlos Menem and his foreign minister Guido Di Tella tried to alter Argentina's foreign policy by "aligning" them with the west (and thus away from the non-aligned movement and the constraints of the Malvinas issue), 54% expressed that view.

More recent polls have found that Argentines, asked to list the "main problems confronting the country", reply by ranking unemployment (62%) and security and crime (38%) far above the Malvinas - twenty-fourth on the list, at 1%. Palermo's conclusion gives hope for the future: there clearly exist no homogeneous preferences among the population that constitute an insurmountable wall to diplomatic progress, and this lack of entrenchment offers considerable leeway for wise political leadership.

Alas, President Kirchner appears determined to revive the causa in all its strength, appealing again to its redemptive attributes. While this persists, while the Malvinas continues to be used to score domestic political points - and we must remember that 2007 is an electoral year in Argentina - there is little hope that an alternative set of policies towards the islands and to Britain will emerge. Until that time, some of us between 2 April and 14 June will quietly remember those Argentine and British soldiers who died in a conflict that should never have happened.

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