Las Malvinas conflict

In addition to the end of the world, 2012 marks the 30 years “anniversary” of the Malvinas/Falkland islands war, fought between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982. In part for this symbolic year, this conflict has made its way back in the news. In the last few months, Argentina’s government has put pressure on Great Britain and on other countries to force negotiations concerning the control over the tiny islands, home of 3000 people, mostly British descendants. President Kirchner got most Latin American countries to denounce what she considers being British colonialism. She even left the Summit of the Americas early to protest the absence of the issue in the final resolution. For its part, the British government has maintained a none negotiable hard line, sending war ships and, beware Argentineans, Prince Williams to reinforce its military presence on the island. Nothing to worry about, neither country is looking for a war. What is all this about then?

A little history first, the Malvinas are under British rule since 1833, following French, Spanish, and short-lived Argentinean occupations (destroyed in 1829 by an American war ship). Because of its proximity with mainland (464 km), the fact they were expulsed by force and their past possession of the islands (including Spanish rule before independence), Argentina never recognized British authority over the islands. One must also note a long tradition of British imperialism in Argentina, mostly economically, but also militarily, such as the consecutives invasions in 1806 and 1807. Which brings us to 1982. An incompetent and corrupted military dictatorship, faced with its own failure to redress Argentina’s economy and eager to move the attention away from its terrible human rights record (about 30 000 individuals “disappeared” during the dictatorship), saw the invasion of the British Islands as great national cause that could get them popular support. Which it did for a few weeks, until Margaret Thatcher decided to response with force. The British navy crushed an inadequately equipped and formed Argentinean military. The truth is, the generals thought Great Britain would negotiate or maybe even let go of the islands. Result, more than 900 deaths, and the end of Argentinean military dictatorship who was completely discredited both in Argentina and abroad.

In the 21st century, Las Malvinas plays a similar role it has played in 1982. Faced with slower economic growth for the first time since 2003 (although Argentina still enjoys an enviable economic situation and is still far from recession), Kirchner and her government are stimulating national fervor around Las Malvinas issue. Denouncing Great Britain, asking to negotiate the islands’ return to Argentina comes with no internal political cost and it gives Kirchner an image of power in front of imperialist countries. It brings together left wing entities – Imperialism, to this day, is part of many left wing discourses – and right wing groups – trying overcome of a national humiliation -. In my opinion, this is the main reason why this conflict has reappeared in diplomatic circles, combined to the fact that Las Malvinas are surrounded by immense reserves of offshore oil. Argentina is in dire need of energy sources, as the recent expropriation of the oil company Repsol-YPF shows, and could settle for a deal that would include share exploitation of these reserves.

The British point out to auto determination principles (most islanders want to stay under British rule) while the Argentineans underline some historical and geographical reasons to back their claims. At the end of the day, that the small community of las Malvinas are Argentinean or British matters little in the actual conflict. It is more a question of internal politics and interests than international law. Even if nothing comes out of these diplomatic and media actions, it would have served the simple political purpose of bringing Argentinean behind a national cause once again.