Falklands or Malvinas?

Some of the biggest winds in the world blow through the stormy South Atlantic, but none stormier than the political hyperbole that's sweeping through the region lately. It's just 30 years since the Falkland Islands war that took 900 young lives and saved the government of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while bringing down one of South America's foulest military dictatorships. All this for possession of some 770 chilly islands totaling about half the area of Los Angeles County and with about the same year-round population (3,200) as Santa Catalina Island. Not counting seals, albatrosses, penguins and about 500,000 sheep.

Both sides claim to be upholding U.N. mandates: onBritain'spart, the 1945 U.N. Charter's original generalized right to self-determination of all nations; onArgentina's, the more recent U.N. Anti-Colonial Resolution 2065, which asks that Britain specifically negotiate the islands' sovereignty.

"Next year will mark 180 years since the usurpation by the government of United Kingdom, which threw out the Argentines," President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner told journalists last week. (In fact, the 1833 Argentine settlers were swept off by aU.S. Navy ship, but the British moved in right after that.) She announced the filing of a formal complaint with the U.N. to protest "the militarization of the islands" as well as Britain's refusal to negotiate their future. She stood in front of a wall map of the "Malvinas," colored in Argentine-flag blue, white and yellow. The colors were powerful symbols. Even before the 1982 war, the Argentine tendency has been to isolate the Falklands. Now the quest is blue, white and yellow ownership.

The British response has been a repetition of Prime Minister David Cameron'sJanuary statement to Parliament: "The future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the people. As long as the [Falklanders] want to remain part of the United Kingdom and be British, they should be able to do so." Here, Cameron cited the paradox that irks Argentines. The Falklanders claim two nationalities — as citizens of the self-governing Falklands Territory, and as subjects of the British crown whose still-formidable forces impede invaders. To Argentina and many of its Latin American allies, this makes the territory seem more a colony than a nation.

Though the Argentines insist they are on a peaceful quest, their language is increasingly bellicose. Peronist youth are burning British flags outside the embassy. There is now also the still-uncertain issue of the islands' possible offshore oil resources. The recent rev-up in Buenos Aires' rhetoric has the Falklanders "stealing our resources."

Argentina'sdiplomatic offensive has had success. The Obama administration supports negotiation. Many South American and Caribbean ports are closed to Falklands-flagged ships. Argentina now seems to want Chile to cut the last air link between the Falklands and South America, a weekly flight from Chile that sometimes also stops in Argentina. Ironically, the people this would hurt would be Argentine families seeking to visit the graves of soldiers who fell in 1982. Chileans working on the islands would also suffer. The only certain effect on Falklanders would be to make them more dependent on Britain and Europe, and more colonial than ever.

Could this be Argentina's purpose? To rub South Americans' noses in the Falklands' otherness? Just as the generals did in 1982, the Fernandez government needs a distraction. Argentina's economy is riding a rocket of inflation that the government refuses to acknowledge. Despite an improving economy, the nation is still rife with slums and poverty. The river at the capital's southern boundary is perhaps the most toxic in the hemisphere. The 65-year alliance of Fernandez's Peronist party and big labor has abruptly collapsed. Once again, the affluent are sending their wealth into exile.

All of these are far more pressing issues than which flag flies 300 miles off shore. Of course, Britain now faces crises of its own, and Buenos Aires can plausibly accuse Cameron of trying to distract his own hard-hit constituents: He has sent Prince William's Royal Air Force helicopter squadron and one of Europe's most powerful warships to the region.

Argentine journalist-historian Jorge Lanata said that "the Malvinas are now part of our imagination; we are blinded by years of official rhetoric." The sovereignty issue has become a cause that can always be counted on to rouse the populace to sincere if most likely hopeless indignation, and to distract it from vital national problems.

Yet 2010 polling cited in the Falklands press indicated that half of Argentina's population was OK with the British claim or doesn't care one way or the other. Of the remainder, 28% were interested not in a takeover but in some sort of shared Malvinas administration.

This suggests a possible resolution that would end the saber-rattling and reverse Fernandez's policy. As Lanata put it, "Argentina needs to integrate with the islands, not bully them."

One who recently died for this belief was Alejandro Daniel Carranza, an Argentine who'd fought in the Falklands in 1982. He kayaked from Argentine Patagonia to the islands simply to demonstrate the need for peace and fellowship between the large nation and the small. He drowned along the way. But he had the right idea.

If the Argentines really want to bring the islands into their orbit, they must drop barriers and encourage connections. They must allow the Falklanders to do business or to vacation in Argentina, just two hours away by plane compared with 20 hours for Britain; to buy and sell in Argentine markets, to honeymoon in coastal Mar del Plata, to attend Argentine universities, to learn to tango and eat beef and to intermarry.

The destiny of geography should answer the sovereignty question with a new Falklands: a truly South American nation. Albeit the tiniest one of all.

Marc B. Haefele has reported on Argentina for the Boston Review, the Jewish Journal and the Argentine magazine Nomada.

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