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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-04-2024 06:54

Looking for unity offshore

Despite the diplomatic points that can be scored, the current status quo looks likely to prevail for some time to come.

Some fortunate countries are accustomed to commemorating the end of wars, especially those they won at great cost, and pay far less attention to the anniversaries of when they began. Argentines prefer to remember the day that the only recent one which involved them or their parents suddenly got underway. For a brief moment back in April 1982, millions of people, aflame with nationalistic fervour, took it for granted that their troops would emerge victorious from the fighting in the South Atlantic. In the weeks that followed, many learned that war was a rather more serious business than they had imagined.

Though it is now agreed that, in a desperate attempt to curry favour with the populace, the military junta which then ruled the country committed a terrible mistake which cost them and the country dearly, many politicians and others feel nostalgia for what they took to be the display of national unity given by the jubilant crowds that cheered Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri when he appeared on the Pink House balcony. The belief that if only everyone were to close ranks and think the same thoughts the country would quickly recover from its many ailments is still widely held; the “political class” is in bad odour largely because, as happens in every democracy, its members always seem to be bickering among themselves.  

All the democratically-elected governments that succeeded the dictatorship, even the one headed by Raúl Alfonsín who had opposed the war from the beginning, took note of what had happened in April 1982 and assumed that the irredentist claim to the Islas Malvinas, or Falkland Islands, was a sacred cause, a crusade which every single Argentine was morally obliged to support with passion. On Tuesday, many insisted, as they and others like them had done for decades, that it is the only thing that unites us all.

In most parts of the world, moving the frontiers that divide countries and the territories they dominate back to where they were almost 200 years ago is not regarded as a feasible option; those who deny this tend to be derided as extreme right-wing cranks. The international support Argentina enjoys on the issue has far less to do with principles or the legalistic arguments wielded by those who think that in the early 19th century the country had a fairly strong case than with the desire to stick it to the British or, in Italy and Spain, to ethnic solidarity and long memories of humiliations their ancestors had suffered at the hands of arrogant northerners.

In any event, despite the diplomatic points that can be scored by getting a UN committee to insinuate it supports an official Argentine position and asking the British to take it seriously, the current status quo – with the United Kingdom refusing to budge and Argentine representatives insisting that the desires of the inhabitants of the islands do not deserve to be taken into account – looks likely to prevail for some time to come. Few should find this prospect distressing. After all, if those who tell us that wanting the islands to become an internationally recognised part of the fatherland is all that unites the country have it right, actually getting them would surely be disastrous because it would deprive Argentina of what allegedly keeps her in one piece.

Defining what makes a country different is never easy, but assuming that Argentina´s fate will be determined by the vicissitudes of a long-lasting territorial claim does not make much sense. Over the years, the country has developed a distinct national character which is based on shared memories that have little to do with conflicts with foreign powers. The biggest threats it faces are internal, not external, and most can be traced not to the loss ages ago of islands that, had they been ruled from Buenos Aires since the early 19th century, hardly anyone would want to visit, let alone make their home, than to an overabundance of land and the easily exploitable material riches it contains; encouraged by the notion that Argentina was fabulously wealthy by nature or by divine decree, far too many politicians felt that instead of husbanding resources they could spend them on whatever took their fancy because there would always be more than enough available.

Ironically, there are plenty of reasons to think that, had previous generations of Argentine leaders taken a low-key approach to the problem that ended up obsessing so many of them, they could have succeeded in persuading the authorities in London, and the islanders, that it would be in their interest to accept a transfer of sovereignty, with Argentina good-heartedly assuming the burden of looking after the mainly Scottish sheep-farmers who lived in the remote South Atlantic archipelago.

However, while an ostentatiously pro-British strategy might have proven effective and would have certainly worked better than the one that inspired Galtieri and, in a more pacific guise, many who came before and after him, it would have greatly annoyed those whose attachment to the cause has always had more to do with their hostility towards the British Empire and what in their eyes it stood for than with the dream of adding yet more square miles of remote territory to the huge numbers of them that the country already had. As was made evident during the course of the South Atlantic war, for such people defeating the wicked Anglo-Saxon imperialists was what really mattered and a peaceful handover, with both sides agreeing that it was all for the best, would have left them with a very sour taste in the mouth.

For what are presumably political reasons, the “libertarian” government seems bound to continue the campaign of diplomatic harassment that was pursued by most of its predecessors, with Javier Milei preferring “dialogue” and the vice-president, Victoria Villarruel, adopting a more hawkish stance. In light of the differences between the two, with Milei – who is fully aware that London remains a highly influential financial hub – giving priority to the economy and Villarruel, who takes great pride in her late father’s record as an Army officer who fought in the South Atlantic war, being something of an Anglophobe, such discrepancies are understandable. Whether or not they will affect the present government’s policies towards the UK and the Western alliance in which it plays a key role is an open question.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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