In recent months the government of Argentina has launched a new political and public relations campaign aimed at putting pressure on Great Britain to negotiate the future of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands.
The islands constitute an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean 300 miles from the Argentinean coast. These islands have been ruled by Great Britain since 1833 except for a short period in April 1982 after the Argentinean navy invaded and conquered the islands.
Argentina has continued to claim the islands, arguing that the country acquired them from Spain after Argentina became an independent state in 1810. The United Nations called for the Argentineans and the British to conduct a dialogue over the future of the Islands. The British government has asserted, particularly since 2009, that there will be no talks since the residents of the islands do not wish to be part of Argentina. About 3,000 people live on the islands. The majority are of British descent. English is the official language and all are British citizens since 1983, shortly after the Argentinean Armed Forces were removed by the British from the island.
On February 10th of this year, Argentina complained to the United Nations about Great Britain’s “militarization” of the area after the British sent a warship to the island. Great Britain, the U.S. State Department, as well as several observers, pointed out that the presence of the ship is part of a routine and does not constitute any violation or militarization of the area. The United Nations proposed to mediate in order to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict. Argentina accepted the UN proposal.
Beyond the question of who is right and who is wrong, it is important to understand how symbolic the issue of the islands has become and how much it is part of a nationalist foreign policy that transcends the boundaries of Argentina.
Indeed, the government of Cristina Kirchner has made the Falkland/ Malvinas issue a regional issue. “The Falklands have ceased to be a cause just for Argentines but to become a cause for [Latin] Americans,” Kirchner pointed out. Countries in the region (Mercosur) have joined the Argentinean embargo of ships that carry the Falkland’s flag. The countries of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), a group of eight countries, allied with Hugo Chavez met early in February and the Falkland Islands were the main issue discussed by the group. The Venezuelan president called on the foreign ministers of these countries to look into the possibility of sanctioning the United Kingdom for its “refusal to enter into dialogue”. Thus, the Bolivarian Alliance joined the Argentinean-embargo against the Falklands/Malvinas flagged ships.
Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, one of the most anti-Western leaders in Latin America and the most likely successor to Hugo Chavez as leader of the Bolivarian alliance pointed out that “it is time that Latin America decides on sanctions against that misplaced power that intends to be imperial and colonialist in the 21st Century”.
Indeed, the claim on the islands that is being made by the Argentinean government and its regional allies is an “anti-colonialist”, anti-Western crusade.
The use of the United Nations is a very wise tool as it has been effectively used against the State of Israel, a U.S ally, over and over again.
Thus, Argentina has recruited not only regional leaders but also regional intellectuals, among them the former human rights activist and Nobel laureate, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who has taken a lead on the issue. Interestingly enough, Perez Esquivel received the Nobel Prize over his struggle for human rights during the bloody dirty war in Argentina that took place during the years 1976-1983. Perez Esquivel is now an unapologetic supporter of Hugo Chavez and his regime, despite the Bolivarian leader’s countless human rights and democracy violations. Most recently Perez Esquivel also led a delegation of 22 intellectuals who met with Fidel Castro a dictator who has oppressively ruled Cuba for the last 52 years.
Latin American solidarity has been an issue well rooted in the nationalist left long before Chavez began to spread his Bolivarian doctrine of Latin American unity.
Moreover, this element of nationalism and anti-imperialism often unifies the extreme left and the extreme right.
For example, during the British-Argentinean war over the Falkland/Malvinas in 1982, Fidel Castro had no problem in enthusiastically volunteering his advice to the bloody anti-leftist Argentinean Military Junta. The fact that the regime persecuted and killed pro-Castro groups and assassinated tens of thousands of Argentineans did not cause any moral dilemma for Castro. (At that time, the Soviet Union also had a strong relationship with the anti-Marxist Argentinean military Junta).
The embargo against the islanders’ boats is unfair and is disrespectful of the desires of the Falkland/Malvinas residents who do not wish to be ruled by Argentina. Last year Kirchner and her allies were at the forefront of an international campaign to support Palestinian independence while ignoring Israel as a negotiating partner. This year they are willing to subjugate and impose their will over a population that does not wish to accept such rule. Indeed, they want to use international pressure in order to bring Great Britain to its knees.
This is why it is no wonder that a group of serious and prestigious intellectuals issued a letter indirectly repudiating the spirit of Kirchner’s motives.
This group led by Beatriz Sarlo, a well- known literary and cultural critic, blasted the strategy chosen by the Argentinean government to confront the United Kingdom over the islands. They demanded that the government engage in a genuine dialogue to “guarantee the self-determination of the islanders”. The group sees a contradiction between Argentina’s request to negotiate with Great Britain and its claim that Argentinean sovereignty over the islands is non-negotiable”.
Most importantly, the group also warned that the situation requires that “we do not engage in jingoism that in the past led us to death”. They called to cease the nationalistic agitation promoted by the government and develop an “alternative vision to overcome the conflict with Great Britain”. In a final statement these intellectuals reminded the public that “our worst tragedies were not caused by the loss of land but by lack of respect to life, human rights, and other Republican values such as freedom, equality, and self-determination”.
As expected, the Argentinean government reacted with verbal aggression and contempt for the letter.
The Falkland/Malvinas case represents a display of regional unity for the wrong reasons. Such unity has also played into the hands of highly controversial figures, such as Hugo Chavez. Despite the fact that Chavez does not represent the spirit of the majority of the countries in the region, he has gained political leverage from these conflictive situations.
Chavez and Kirchner are two allies. Kirchner’s speech at the December summit of Latin American and Caribbean Community of States (CELAC) contained numerous statements suggesting a conflict of interests between the region and the West.
Both leaders are also seeking to increase tensions between the United States and Latin American countries. Among other things, they expect to embarrass the U.S. by exposing it as an ally of Great Britain and thus further radicalize “anti-imperialist” sentiments. The fact that groups of regional solidarity in Latin America have proliferated (e.g CELAC, Union of South American Nations or UNASUR, ALBA, the System of Central American Integration or SICA) drags other countries like Brazil, Chile and Mexico to accept unilateral positions that require more sophistication and balance.
Regional nationalism could become a real problem if it is not fairly and properly approached as the biggest winners could be the wrong actors.
The Falkland/Malvinas episode is not insignificant. The U.S. must anticipate these conflictive scenarios and be ready to develop contingent political plans to prevent further escalation. What seems to be a British/Argentinean problem might spread beyond these two countries. Ignoring the issue should not be an option.