Once again, the dispute between Great Britain and Argentina over some small islands in the South Atlantic is turning into heated words. In 1982, these two nations fought the well-known war that kept the islands British.
In an unusual move, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recently placed an ad in British newspapers asserting Argentina’s sovereignty over the islands.
Buenos Aires, January 3rd, 2013
Mr Prime Minister David Cameron,
One hundred and eighty years ago on the same date, January 3rd, in a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism, Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas Islands, which are situated 14,000km (8700 miles) away from London.
The Argentines on the Islands were expelled by the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom subsequently began a population implantation process similar to that applied to other territories under colonial rule.
Since then, Britain, the colonial power, has refused to return the territories to the Argentine Republic, thus preventing it from restoring its territorial integrity.
The Question of the Malvinas Islands is also a cause embraced by Latin America and by a vast majority of peoples and governments around the world that reject colonialism.
In 1960, the United Nations proclaimed the necessity of “bringing to an end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations”. In 1965, the General Assembly adopted, with no votes against (not even by the United Kingdom), a resolution considering the Malvinas Islands a colonial case and inviting the two countries to negotiate a solution to the sovereignty dispute between them.
This was followed by many other resolutions to that effect.
In the name of the Argentine people, I reiterate our invitation for us to abide by the resolutions of the United Nations.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
President of the Argentine Republic
Cc: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Cameron’s spokesperson responded forcefully and quickly, stating that they would “do everything to protect the interests of the Falklands islanders.” He also stated that the Falklanders would be able to express their choice in a referendum set for March.
The Falklands is an extremely complicated issue that brings forth competing claims. The two sides are not negotiating towards any settlement. That probably explains Fernández’ strange diplomatic foray into newspaper diplomacy. It isn’t about reaching a settlement with the British but keeping attention on the issue so her countrymen won’t be distracted by the struggling economy.
Contrary to Fernández’ assertions, this is not the typical colonial-type argument. A bit of history explains the problems with the Falklands or Malvinas as the Argentines call it. It is an issue where nationalism is overriding commonsense on both sides.
There are fewer than 3,000 islanders on them. None of them are descendants from indigenous peoples. That is because when the islands were first discovered by a Dutch explorer in 1600 they were uninhabited. That makes the argument by the Argentine’s of British colonialism much harder to prove.
France established the first settlement in 1764, but Britain started a settlement on the other island in 1765 without either side aware of the competing claims. Spain assumed France’s claim in 1767. In 1770, Spain and Britain nearly went to war over the islands when 1,400 Spanish marines overran the small British garrison. A peace treaty reaffirmed the British settlement. However, the British did leave in 1774 because of economic reasons. They left behind a plaque declaring their claim. A few years later, the Spanish left too, also leaving behind a plaque asserting their claim.
The current dispute centers on the next settlement. German-born Luis Vernet started a settlement in 1828 with the blessings of both the Argentine and British governments. At that time, Vernet lived in Argentina, known at that time as the United Provinces of the River Plate. He would later be named Military and Civil Commander of Falkland Islands and the Islands adjacent to Cape Horn by the government in Buenos Aires. While developing his settlement under the auspices of the Buenos Aires government, Vernet also kept the British informed by sending reports to them. Vernet sought protection by the Argentines from other nations plundering the islands resources. Instead, Vernet was appointed Military and Civil Commander, essentially telling Vernet he had the power to do what he wanted to find his own protection. The British disputed the appointment, but Vernet tried to placate them by inviting a British military presence.
Along come the Americans in 1831 with the USS Lexington. Vernet tried to halt seal hunting by the Americans. The Lexington responded by destroying his settlement. Once again, the islands were free of inhabitants. A year later, Argentina sent a small force to establish a penal colony. The soldiers mutinied and killed their commander. The British arrived a few months later and sent the Argentine soldiers packing, while encouraging the settlement that Vernet once established now headed by Vernet’s aide Matthew Brisbane. Brisbane and others were killed over the failure to pay some Argentines living on the island. At that point, the British asserted permanent military and legal control. The British only used the Falklands as a naval station until 1840 when a permanent settlement was established.
On a purely historical note, both sides do have claims to the territory. That was complicated by Vernet who played both sides.
The Argentine claim that the Falklands are an example of colonialism is hollow because there were no indigenous people that were displaced. Furthermore, the Argentine claim rests on Spain’s claim, which is just as colonial as Britain’s. The British have countered that the Falklands is 310 miles from the Argentine mainland so it is a separate territory in itself. That argument rings hollow too. The Falklands may be 310 miles from Patagonia, but that is a lot closer than it is to the British Isles.
Inevitably, the argument comes down to the self-determination of the Falklanders. They are never going to choose an alignment with Argentina. If Argentina does invade and capture the Falklands, the colonial argument can be turned on its head by claiming that the Argentines are a colonial power suppressing a people. The British have ruled the islands for nearly 180 years. Those of European descent (97%) overwhelmingly dominate Argentina. The small Native American population has been decimated by 500 years of rule by Europeans and their descendants. There is irony that a country that was founded on colonialism should use that as an argument to assert colonialism.
The real dispute is not so much the islands, but the vast sea area around them. The oil-rich waters take up a sizeable segment of the South Atlantic. That the Argentines feel a bit cramped by this is understandable. Yet the wishes of 3,000 people, most who were born there, is paramount.
Any real compromise is unlikely. That is because the British have boxed themselves into the corner by standing with the wishes of the 3,000 residents who are decidely pro-British. On the other side, Argentina’s leaders regularly whip up nationalist feelings to maintain their own power. It is hard to see how this can end in anything but another eventual war. All that can be hoped is that it can be delayed until two reasonable governments in Buenos Aires and London put their heads together to share the resources protect the wishes of the Falklanders. Don’t hold your breath on that happening. There is so much enmity that neither side wishes to negotiate.