Argentina: Dispute over Falklands/Malvinas rises again
The dispute with the U.K. over the Falkland Islands is notorious throughout Argentina, where “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Malvinas are Argentine) signs are displayed. (Photo: Leandro Kibisz)
Argentines call them las Malvinas. The British call them the Falklands. In news jargon, many assume that to use one name over the other is to take a side, mostly because these islands are the source of an acrimonious dispute that led to a non-declared war between the two countries in 1982.
Enter Mercosur, the trade agreement between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay - with Chile as one of the associated member states - which, a week ago, decided to ban ships that fly the Falklands flag from their ports. The measure, a blockade in simple terms, was taken to show solidarity with Argentina on the issue.
But UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s response has been all but soft.
“Let me be absolutely clear. We will always maintain our commitment to you on any question of sovereignty,” Cameron said in a radio address to the islanders. “We will never negotiate on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless you, the Falkland Islanders, so wish. No democracy could ever do otherwise.”
The U.K.’s refusal to cede the territories to Argentina is based, historically, on the 1690 discovery by English captain John Strong and the re-establishment of British rule since 1833. Argentina bases its claims on the fact that current Falklanders are not aboriginal, having replaced the original Argentine population of the islands. Prior to 1833, Argentina, France, Spain, U.K., and the U.S., among others each held de facto control of the islands at some point.
The prevalence of the dispute is notorious in Argentina, where large signs reading “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Malvinas are Argentine) are displayed everywhere. National media also refers to them as Malvinas, barring the “Falklands” reference.
In turn, “Malvinas,” or any Spanish references to the territories, are considered offensive by local authorities and the average population of the islands, who have publicly expressed their will to remain a U.K. territory, not an Argentine one.
“One of the reasons that Argentina is raising the stakes again is because it is now absolutely certain that there are vast quantities of oil under the ocean around the Falklands,” wrote the Herald Scotland’s Harry Reid. Cameron himself does not shy away from speaking about the islands’ relevance for his government.
“In the context of the global economic downturn, the Falklands continue to enjoy significant economic success,” he said in his radio speech. “Through your own efforts, you have balanced your books and increased your financial reserves. Your tourism industry goes from strength to strength. And hydrocarbons exploration has continued unimpeded, with drilling in the Southern Basin starting next month.”
What’s more surprising is that, in the midst of complaints from British diplomats in the region – Jon Benjamin, ambassador to Chile, said “this looks like an economic blockade against the islands and their tiny, innocent civil population” – one key player continues to support Argentina: China.
“China will continue to support the Argentine claim over the sovereignty on Islas Malvinas,” said Jiang Shusheng, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. “This is a non variable stance for China.”
The Mercosur move, promoted by Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, is well-timed in that it hits the U.K. at a time where an armed conflict would damage its already hurting economy, and at a moment where, as Reid points out, “Britain, hardly a powerful military player in 1982, is now infinitely weaker than then, both economically and militarily.”