LONDON: Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s letter in a British newspaper calling for the “return” of the Falkland Islands last week was not taken very seriously in the UK, provoking little official backlash other than a retaliatory response in a Buenos Aires paper by British tabloid The Sun.
Pundits and politicians alike have long realized that Argentina uses the Falkland Islands — which it calls and claims as Les Malvinas — to divert attention away from more pressing domestic political concerns. Kirchner’s letter, which came on the 180th anniversary of Britain’s re-assertion of authority over the Falklands on Jan. 3, 1832, comes at as Argentina’s economy faces significant challenges.
“Whenever Argentina’s economy is in a nose-dive, the Falklands become an issue,” explained John Harrison, author of Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories from the Discovery of Antarctica, and an expert in the history of the region. “The same week the IMF was considering censuring Argentina over a failure to make proper declarations about its economy, where inflation is widely believed to be running at two-and-a-half times the ‘official’ figures.”
Britain has long rejected the argument that the Falklands is a colony — as Kirchner brands it — in the conventional sense of the term. There were no natives on the islands before the British arrived, and those living there now are British by descent and culture. If there was any colonialism displayed in the recent history of the Falklands, Harrison said, it was Argentina’s invasion of the islands in 1982 leading to a bloody war between the two countries.
“Occupation against local wishes by an alien Hispanic culture and language would be colonization. That’s why the Argentines invaded by force, and cannot persuade the islanders to cede voluntarily,” he said.
It was a Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, that took Britain to war in the Falklands, so Kirchner is unlikely to find a sympathetic ear in the current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a Latin America expert Chatham House, said that the Falklands occupies a special place in the political heart of Britain: unlike the Cayman Islands or Turk and Caicos, which is now ruled from Westminster after its premier was embroiled in a corruption scandal.
“In the case of the Falklands, the wishes and interests of the islanders are regarded as sacrosanct, they are treated in a very different way,” he said.
Unlike ordinary Argentinians, he added, who do not attach much importance to the issue. While most people in the country do consider the Falklands to be part of Argentina, they are far more concerned with bigger problems, such as crime, unemployment and inflation. “On the other hand, in Britain, you mess with the Falklands at your peril. Any government seen as being weak on the issue will pay a very heavy political penalty,” Bulmer-Thomas said.
But 2012 was not only a tense year for relations between Argentina and Britain because of the renewed wrangling over the Falklands. Britain’s decision to rename a 169,000 chunk of British Antarctic Territory as Queen Elizabeth Land, to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee, also inflamed Argentine opinion. The territory was claimed by Britain in both 1908 and 1917, but overlaps the area of the continent claimed by Argentina, which considered Antarctica as part of its land after independence.
The argument is academic, as Argentina, Chile and Britain all signed the Antarctic Treaty 1959, Article IV of which states that no acts subsequent to signing can be used to support claims, nor any new claim be lodged after signature. Simply in terms of naming, however, Britain’s claims to the territory are enhanced by first discovery, Harrison said.
“The South Shetland Islands, which lie within the re-named territory, were the first part of Antarctica to be seen, by Englishman William Smith. Britain has also exercised a continuous presence and occupation — though so have Chile and Argentina — and other nationalities acknowledged and submitted to the British administration of whaling during the first 30 years of the twentieth century until the industry’s collapse,” he said.
Still, the Antarctic decision has come as a shock to some analysts.
“I was surprised, I must be honest,” said Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at the Royal Holloway University of London and the author of The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction. “I suspect no one could have been surprised that Argentina would not react well. 2012 has been a tense year — the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict in particular. But it is also the case that Argentina and Chile do not have to acknowledge the existence of Queen Elizabeth Land on their maps.”
Chatham House’s Bulmer-Thomas agrees that the move was a surprise, and a particularly shortsighted one given the importance of the occasion.
“I think it was a mistake, and I think it was unfortunate for the Queen actually because what should have been a nice apolitical gesture in her diamond jubilee year has become almost a party political issue marking a further blow in the sad relationship between Britain and Argentina,” he said.
Bulmer-Thomas said there are two possible explanations, firstly that the UK Cabinet simply did not think through the consequences with regards to the bilateral relationship with Argentina, “or they did think it through and they rather enjoyed the opportunity to tweak Argentina’s tail. Which of these two, I’m not sure, but I fear it’s the first. I think they perhaps didn’t think through the consequences properly.”
Harris was more circumspect. “I was a little surprised, but only because it is very seldom that things change in Antarctica. It is important to stress that this is a naming of land claimed for well over a century, and not a new claim,” he said.
Dodds, meanwhile, said that both the lack of credence attached to Kirchner’s letter regarding the Falklands – which was brushed aside in a statement by David Cameron’s official spokesman – and the recent moves in Antarctica have served to show Argentina that such topics are not up for discussion.
“I suspect it was a neat way of recognizing the achievements of the Queen and registering a determination that the UK is not weakening on the sovereignty position in the South Atlantic and Antarctic,” he said.
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