By Ilya Kharlamov
“Two bald men fighting over a comb” – this is how the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges characterized the war between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). The war started 30 years ago, on April 2, 1982, and has not yet brought any clarity in this sovereignty dispute. Both Britain and Argentina insist that the islands are theirs.
The Falklands conflict is rooted in history. Argentinians believe that the islands were discovered by Esteban Gomez, a crew member on one of Magellan`s ships. Great Britain claims that the Falklands were discovered by John Davis in 1592. A century later, Captain Strong discovered a channel separating the two major islands and called them after Lord Falkland. Later the islands themselves were named after the channel, and in late 19th century Britain proclaimed them its colonial territory.
Disputes over sovereignty could have remained history if the islands were not of such great geopolitical importance, and if Argentinian leader Leopoldo Galtieri was not so desperate to stay in office in 1982, when his country was on the brink of an economic crisis. The Falklands are located on the route from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and are a gate to the rich resources of Antarctica. Now the mining is banned in Antarctica but who can be sure that things won`t change with time?
Galtieri decided to settle the dispute by means of force, which cost him his career. They say he was under influence when he ordered the Falklands invasion. Argentinian senator Hipolito Solari Yrigoyen claimed that the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also suffered from the “illness of alcoholism” when she forced a war after Galtieri’s invasion. These allegations, however, cannot be proven. Veteran of the Falklands War and regional representative of the South Atlantic Medal Association Douglas Page shared his views on the roots of the conflict with the VoR:
“Well, the thing is that Margaret Thatcher was having troubles in the polls, yes, but I don’t think she was started the war just because she was having problems in the polls. And it’s quite normal for this county for things like that to happen. Look, talking about general Galtieri, general Galtieri was part of a military junta in the Argentine and they were having major problem with that population and at the time people were going missing. I don’t know how true that is. But it’s known quite a few people disappearing and nobody knew where they were going. What he wanted to do was thing about Falkland Islands. People keep saying its longstanding thing. What really happened Juan Peron who was President of Argentina in time of his popularity said that Argentinean should have control over Malvinas Islands and the Falkland Islands.”
In quite a peculiar way the Falklands war played into the hands of both Buenos Aires and London. Ruled by a dictator and suffering grave economic problems, Argentina then needed an external enemy to bring the nation together and –in case of a victory- glorify the dictator. Britain was also living through difficult times then: mass unemployment, unpopular reforms and upcoming parliamentary elections could have cost the ruling Conservatives their political image. External enemy seemed to be an excellent chance to distract public attention from domestic issues.
Influenced by the media and political campaigns Brits rejected all the attempts still made by the government to settle the dispute diplomatically. British expert, Dr. Alasdair Pinkerton shared his opinion with the VoR:
“Nicolas Ridley he was a close ally of Margaret Thatcher just before 1982 flew to the Falkland Island in order to discuss joint sovereignty arrangements and even the Falkland Island said no, do not dare negotiate on this terms he came back and meet the recommendation the British Government that joint sovereignty should be proceed. That was just the case of few months before the invasion of 1982. And actually that fundamental change of things that forced the invasion. If anything that has cemented at British opinion the Falkland Island should have a right to self-determination, that should be protected from potentially aggressive neighbors, I’m not saying they are still necessarily aggressive in the same way but Argentina looking to win friends and influence people I would suggest that organizing things like blockades of ports to British and Falkland Islands flag the vessels.”
Ordinary Britons were looking for an idea that could unite them and needed a short triumphant war. The press contributed greatly to this, and very often concealed some interesting facts. The Sunday Times did not release an article which contained excerpts from correspondence between Home Office employees. One of the excerpts read: “Proving our sovereignty over the islands and avoiding self-exposure as international bandits is quite a challenge”.
Since there had been so much fuss about the conflict, Britons seemed to have missed the British Special Forces` failure to prevent Argentina’s invasion of the islands. They failed despite having plenty of means to spot the location of the Argentinian troops.
Questions remain about the way the Falklands were fortified. By the time the Argentinian troops landed on the islands, only 100 British troops had been stationed there. Of course, Argentina’s army and navy were far weaker than those of Great Britain. But was it a reason for being so carefree amid the long lasting dispute? Only after the invasion took place Britain sent its troops- stationed 13,000 km away- to the Falklands.
The war claimed the lives of 258 British and 649 Argentinian troops. Both sides lost two dozens of war ships and merchant ships, 130 planes and helicopters. One of the Royal Navy ships, HMS Sheffield, struck by Argentina in 1982, sparked a scandal even two decades later. Responding to speculation that British ships carried nuclear weapons in the Falklands war, the country`s Ministry of Defense admitted that in 1982 the Royal Navy ships did have nuclear depth charges on board, adding that they were transferred to other ships heading back home.
Argentina and Britain faced opposite outcomes of the Falklands war. Themilitary junta led by LeopoldoGaltieri lost power, while ordinary Argentinians took the defeat as a national tragedy. Great Britain regained its status of a country with one of the world’s strongest navies and settled in the Falklands. The Conservatives led by Thatcher celebrated another victory in the elections. The country witnessed a speedy economic recovery. People who lived in the Falklands finally became British citizens and saw huge investment into their economy.
Nevertheless, the conflict does not seem to be over. In 2010 Britain began drilling for oil in the territorial waters of the Falkland Islands, despite strong opposition from Argentina. Now that Latin America is strengthening its positions on the international scene, Buenos Aires again sounds determined to claim its sovereignty over the territory. “The society seems to be obsessed with this idea”, Argentinian student Nicolas Fust says:
“In elementary school we are thought that the Islands belong to Argentina. You never seen the map you see Isle Malvinas.”
Argentina has already enlisted the support of Venezuela. Meanwhile, the U.S., which is London’s key ally, remains indifferent on the issue since it is not interested in any tensions in the neighborhood. The two countries continue blaming each other. Argentinians were particularly offended by Prince William`s recent visit to the Falklands as a helicopter pilot. Nevertheless, a new war in the Falklands is very unlikely today. Falkland islanders, as well as Brits and Argentinians hope for a UN-mediated diplomatic solution to the territorial dispute.