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An Act of War: The UK, Argentina, and the Falklands… er, las Malvinas.

December 14, 2011

The inaugural meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was full of rhetoric on multiple levels and issues. One of the big questions that remains yet to be seen is whether the CELAC–an international organization comprised of all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere with the exception of Canada and the US–will be a non-US organization, or an anti-US organization.

One of the most frequently quoted statements from the CELAC summit came from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega: “We are sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death.” Ortega, who was recently reelected in a hotly disputed election, was referring to the 1823 foreign policy strategy of US President James Monroe that set the precedent for many of the overt (and covert) US interventions within the Hemisphere.

One can’t help but notice the irony, then, in the conversation surrounding the Special Communiqué Project on the Malvinas Islands. The CELAC member states voted unanimously to support Argentina in the territorial dispute of the islands known to the United Kingdom as the Falklands, but to Argentina as las Malvinas. In order to see the irony, we must first go back in time….

Historical Context

The UK’s legal claims to the Islands can be traced back as far as 1690, but they’ve only “occupied” the Islands consistently since 1833. Argentina controlled the Islands for a brief time before 1833, and that’s the basis for the territorial disputes.

Beginning in the 1960’s, Argentina was ruled, to varying degrees of organization and brutality, by a military junta. In 1976, the junta overthrew President Isabel Perón. Rather than instituting one dictator, as with Pinochet in Chile and Franco in Spain, the junta decided to try splitting the powers equally while maintaining the governmental structure of three branches. The military would rule as an institution. This worked for a time, but eventually the junta unofficially split into two factions along (generally speaking) economic and political lines.

Illustration of the campaign. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In the context of a spiraling economic crisis and growing civil unrest, the splitting of the factions led to governmental instability. In a last ditch effort to unify the opposition and bring “cohesion to society”, the junta decided to deploy troops to take back las Malvinas in a show of nationalistic fervor. Since the United States had been generally supportive of the anti-Communist junta, the Generals assumed they would be able to gain US support in the effort by invoking the Monroe Doctrine. On April 2nd, 1982, Argentina deployed troops from Patagonia to take back las Malvinas.

The end result was devastating for Argentina. The armed conflict would end 74 days later, but not in time to save the lives of 649 Argentine servicemen, 255 British servicemen, and 3 Falkland Island civilians who were caught in the crossfire. On June 14th, a thoroughly beaten and embarrassed Argentina finally withdrew from las Malvinas.

Several online sources credit The Falklands War by Andrew Duncan as the source of this telex conversation between the Islands and the British Minister of Defence:


It’s important to note here that I was unable to confirm the validity of this citation (or even that someone named Andrew Duncan wrote anything about the Falklands War). But somehow it still seemed appropriate to include it here.

La Guerra de las Malvinas was a direct result of several miscalculations on the part of the ruling junta. First, they didn’t expect the UK to fight back for the tiny island possessions that were so far from the mainland, and so close to Patagonia. Unfortunately, national pride conflicted with national pride; it was a matter of dignity for Argentina to reclaim what was once hers, but it was a matter of dignity for the UK (a declining world power) to maintain possession of what was hers legally.

Second, the junta overestimated the “win-win” potential of the Monroe Doctrine. As a favor to the Reagan Administration, the Argentine junta provided training to the Contras in Nicaragua. Since the US had been (at least covertly) supportive of the Contras, it made sense to the Argentine government that they would be equally supportive of a campaign to end UK colonization in the Americas. Unfortunately, there was no “win” for the US in standing up against the UK in this situation.

Finally, and somewhat related to the second miscalculation, the junta underestimated the US’ loyalty to the UK. Given a choice between actively supporting the internationally-recognized aggressor (Argentina) and a powerful old ally (Great Britain), Margaret Thatcher won the US over easily. While the US was officially neutral, it is widely believed that intelligence and resources provided by the US was crucial to the UK’s war effort.

With no US support–and a call by the UN Security Council for Argentina to withdraw troops, and for both countries to discuss possession of the Islands diplomatically–the Argentine effort was doomed from the start.

The Falklands War proved to be the beginning of the end for the military junta in Argentina. After all, what kind of national military can’t even secure its own territory? Within a year of the Falklands Crisis, the military was forced to step aside and allow for democratic elections.

Diplomacy & Negotiations

After the Crisis ended, diplomatic ties between Argentina and the UK were not normalized until 1989. The UK immediately declined the UN’s invitation to resolve the conflict diplomatically, so Argentina has worked hard to gain the consensus of as many international organizations as possible–the UN, the OAS, Mercosur, the Andean Community, UNASUR, the Rio Group, and now CELAC–to support them in encouraging the UK to negotiate with Argentina. Despite international encouragement to at least begin talks, the UK maintains that the status issue is non-negotiable.

Argentina hasn’t had an ambassador to the UK since Federico Mirré’s service ended in 2008. While the Administration of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (often referred to simply as “CFK”) had intended to appoint one earlier this year, things changed when they decided not to appoint anyone to that post for the remainder of CFK’s presidency in response to the UK’s decision to re-launch oil exploration operations in the disputed waters. CFK’s term was due to end this month, but she was inaugurated for her second presidential term on Dec. 10th. The Administration has not yet stated whether they intend to appoint an ambassador in her second term.

Although the UN General Assembly met on Dec. 9th to discuss global decolonization, no mention was made specifically regarding las Malvinas. In fact, nothing much has been done (diplomatically) since Special Committee on Decolonization adopted a draft request for Argentina and the UK “to resume talks [about the Falklands] as soon as possible.”

The website of the Argentine Embassy in Australia includes background information (in English) as well as links to several primary documents related to the various movements to get the UK to negotiate.

Another act of war?

Last year, Argentina declared that all ships sailing through the channels leading to las Malvinas must receive permission to pass through Argentine “jurisdictional waters.” On Dec. 5th, the UK lodged an official complaint that Argentina’s enforcement of this legal blockade is not in accordance with international law, to include the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

While trade has not yet been disrupted, in recent months, Argentine patrol vessels (both Navy and Coast Guard) have challenged ships sailing between the Falklands and the port of Montevideo. In each case, the ships have had permits issued by the Falkland Islands, which typically overseas maritime affairs within the 200-mile maritime zone surrounding the Islands. This has some Britons up in arms, calling for the government to respond to the “legal blockade” as an official act of war.

On Dec. 7th, the UK announced plans to establish a massive marine protection zone in the area of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. The British government has already begun coordinating for the one million square kilometer protection zone with key stakeholders in the government and the fishing industry. They have not yet announced when this policy will go into effect.


• One thing Argentina had going for it in 1982 was that the British government ruled in 1981 that residents of the Falkland Islands did not have British citizenship. This technicality was rectified in 1983, so any future aggression by Argentina will likely be handled as in any other situation where the UK is forced to protect her citizens.

• (GFP) provides a number-by-number analysis of military power by country. The rankings are based completely on conventional warfare without considering nuclear weapons. According to the GFP comparison chart, the UK is the 5th strongest military power in the world. Argentina is #32.

• The US appears to be indifferent on this issue, despite the presence of oil reserves in the region. The recent blockade incident has been covered in several places by British press, but it’s been pretty quiet on the US media front. In a recent exclusive interview (en español) with Argentine newspaper La Nación, President Obama focused entirely on bilateral relations and how Argentina can attract more foreign aid by paying off foreign debts. No mention of las Malvinas.

What’s the point?

After reviewing the historical background, considering relative international diplomatic apathy, and comparing military power, we have to wonder: What’s the point? What motives does Argentina have for continuing what appears to be a futile territorial spat?

Sign along the border of Argentina and Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Arturo Puricelli, Argentina’s Minister of Defense, made a few remarks (en español) after the recent graduation ceremony at the Colegio Militar de la Nación. His comments provide some insight into Argentina’s perspective and motives. He said that the UK, in addition to “wanting to dress up [the occupation of las Malvinas] as ecology or environmentalism”, is actually more concerned with “our resources.” He went on to say that since it’s the 21st century, the issue will be handled “definitively” by peaceful means. He did not elaborate on a plan to achieve this.

Minister Puricelli’s remarks echo a statement made by Jorge Arguello, Argentine Ambassador to the UN, in September. In a speech at the China Foundation for International Studies, a Chinese think tank, Arguello said that the 21st Century will prove to be “the century of the natural resources dispute”, adding that the “fisheries and oil have much to do with this [Malvinas] conflict.”

The Minister’s remarks underline a central Argentine concern: if las Malvinas son Argentinas, then the oil in the surrounding waters is also Argentina’s. In a time when the rest of the world is concerned about a global economic downturn, demand for Latin American commodities continues to soar. In fact, the economies of Latin America have grown so fast over the past few years that there have been concerns of overheating. CFK enters her second term facing the prospects of the the second highest inflation rate in the region, behind only Venezuela. Developing oil prospects in the area of las Malvinas might help reduce the economic tensions.

In a blog post, Walter Russell Mead (who, admittedly, knows a lot more about US foreign policy than I do) offered a different interpretation:

“The Kirchner government’s economic program appears to be running out of gas.  Whipping up a controversy with Britain over the Falkland Islands  (Argentines call them the Malvinas) is a traditional resort of Argentine leaders who see bad times ahead. Let’s hope she is smarter than the generals: Falklands Round Two would likely strike many British Tories as a ‘splendid little war’ that would stoke the party’s popularity the way the first war did back in 1982.”

First, one incident can hardly be called “a traditional resort.” But beyond that, I’m not so sure that increasing efforts to regain sovereignty over las Malvinas is a classic last ditch effort to regain popular support so much as it is a classic rally cry for nationalism. If the people of Argentina truly believe that las Malvinas are the rightful territory of Argentina–and many of them do–then it becomes an issue of national pride. After all, what country can’t maintain possession of its own territory?

Final thoughts

It’s hard to predict how this situation will end. It seems unlikely that we’ll see Round 2 of an armed conflict, but I struggle to see how negotiations could possibly end in a win-win situation.

The UK doesn’t want to give up was has legally been her territory since 1690, and Argentina will always claim that las Malvinas son Argentinas. It’s doubtful that either nation will accept anything less than full sovereignty.

The US will continue trying to remain neutral, and historically, international organizations have done little in situations where the US remained disengaged (case in point: Rwanda.) Besides, the UN and NATO are slightly preoccupied with violent situations in Africa and the Middle East right now.

Meanwhile, the other countries of Latin America will continue to blame the US-back Organization of American States (OAS) for not invoking the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance in an incident remembered by most non-Latino historians as an act of Argentine aggression, rather than an act of defense.

As for the short term, the UK will still have to decide whether or not to call off plans to deploy the Duke of Cambridge to the Falklands for a routine training exercise, and the Congress of Argentina will still have to vote on a bill that would send Argentine athletes to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London wearing team uniforms emblazoned with the phrase “Las Malvinas son Argentinas.”

It’s easier to predict how those last two situations will play out.

(EDIT: Click here to read more on the dispute over las Falklands.)

Note: This post was written at the request of a friend. If you have any questions about Latin American history, politics, or US foreign policy within the Western Hemisphere, please feel free to contact me or post a comment.

  1. Adolfo permalink

    One thing that strikes me is that Argentine commentators seem to consider permanent settlement in 1833 an illegal invasion. Given that Britain claimed the islands in 1765, 51 years before Argentina existed, they seem unable to comprehend that Argentina illegally invaded the islands prior to 1833, given the prior British claim (which was never renounced). In addition, Britain’s claim precedes that of Spain; the Spanish were in no position to cede the islands to Argentina especially given Spain’s own recognition of British sovereignty. Argentine lies and distortions have given rise to indoctrination; somehow we need to break through the web of lies.

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