The claim on the islands known in Buenos Aires as the Malvinas is one of few points of general agreement in a divided country
Every Tuesday, a group of Argentinian veterans of the Falklands war gather on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to cook up a barbecue, share memories and plan new campaigns. For them, of course, the islands are the Malvinas, not the Falklands, Port Stanley is Port Argentina, and sovereignty belongs to the government in Buenos Aires, not the one in London.
Now middle-aged, they plan media and education campaigns, arrange interviews, lobby the government and consider how to counter any move that seems designed to strengthen British rule of the islands. Their goals are twofold: to regain the islands they were repelled from in 1982 and to avoid a repeat of a war that is now seen here as a terrible mistake.
So it is with vehemence rather than violence that they dismiss the Falklands’ first referendum on sovereignty, due to start on Sunday, which is expected to reinforce at the ballot box what was determined by guns and tanks in 1982: UK rule over the south Atlantic islands and the sea lanes around them.
“This referendum won’t have any impact on international negotiations. The people on the island have no right to vote on self-determination,” said Ernesto Alonso, head of the 250-member Centre for Ex-Combatants in the Malvinas – one of several veterans’ organisations.
Alonso was 19 when he was conscripted into the 7th Infantry, which suffered heavy casualties, among them his school friends and neighbours. Now he works for the government as head of the commission that represents more than 20,000 former combatants. He is delighted that the Argentinian president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has pushed the issue up the agenda in recent years. “For the first time, the government is saying what we have been saying for years,” he said.
Since the 30th anniversary of the war last year, tensions have increased. Argentina has ramped up the diplomatic noise at the UN and regional bodies, placed full-page advertisements in British newspapers and – most controversially – restricted access to the islands. It has persuaded South American neighbours to turn away Falklands-flagged ships, curtailed overflights and imposed sanctions on companies that exploit the resources of the islands.
Britain has also lifted its rhetoric and intensified oil exploration. It insists no deal is possible without the inclusion of the islanders as a third party in negotiations. This strategy will be underlined by the forthcoming vote. On 10 and 11 March, the 1,500 eligible voters in Port Stanley and other communities will vote on the following question: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom?”
Alonso believes the islanders are in no position to decide the fate of their territory. He says they have limited information and their communications are controlled by the army base. “They live in a dream, in a Disneyland fantasy. In actuality, they are being manipulated by politicians,” he said. While his activism and rhetoric are strong, his views are mainstream. That is evident from the signs at the international airport and the graffiti on the walls, where the message is the same: the Malvinas belong to Argentina. The local equivalent of the Sun still refers to British people as “pirates”. Opinions polls suggest the Falklands is one of the few issues in this politically polarised country on which there is a strong degree of unanimity.
A recent survey by the consultancy Equippe, which is close to the government, found that 75.1% of the public supported the government’s strategy to impose trade restrictions on companies that exploit resources on the islands. Last year, another poll to mark the 30th anniversary of the war indicated that 89% of Argentines supported the sovereignty claims of Buenos Aires.
Britain claims the Fernández government – which has declared the referendum “illegal” – has pumped up the issue to divert attention from domestic woes, including 25% inflation and rising crime.
Guillermo Carmona, a ruling party legislator and president of the commission on foreign affairs, says that if anyone is doing that, it is the British prime minister, because Europe’s problems and British austerity are harder to swallow than any of the challenges faced by Argentina.
The escalation in nationalistic noise coinciding with difficult economic times has drawn comparisons to the early 1980s. But what is happening today is different in that both countries have largely adopted democratic and peaceful strategies – international lobbying and a referendum rather than Exocets and torpedoes – to bolster their positions.
Argentina’s moves to isolate the islands are more aggressive. They are a sign, perhaps, that the stakes have been raised by the discovery of extensive oil deposits near the Falklands. The full extent of the deposits is not yet clear, but the enormous potential is evident from the $1bn (£670m) of investment that has been attracted.For many Argentinians, this explains the rise in tensions and the timing of the referendum.
“The real interest of the UK is connected to petroleum,” said Edgardo Esteban, who was a 19-year-old conscript when he fought in the battle of Port Stanley. Today, he is a film-maker, who has made a reflective documentary about his returns to the island as a journalist.
He has friends there now and remembers a time before the war when relations were much better and the islanders would come to Argentina for education, medical treatment and to watch football matches. The war changed that, but it also transformed Argentina by ending the rule of the country’s murderous military junta. Esteban is frustrated that Britain and the islanders do not recognise this. “They act as if they are still talking to a dictatorship, but now we are a democracy,” he said “What the dictatorship did was wrong. Now the peaceful way is right. But we strongly believe the Malvinas are ours.”
Education has changed: students educated in the 1990s rarely got a chance to discuss the dictatorship or the failure of the invasion.
Those at school since the Kirchners took power have been positively encouraged to broach these issues, which have risen to prominence since the anniversary last year.
“Our textbooks told us that the war in 1982 was a political ploy designed to manipulate people into supporting the dictatorship and to cover up the disappearances,” said Lautaro Pirich, an 18-year-old. “To get the islands back we need to talk, not fight.”
Almost everyone now agrees the 1982 war was a calamitous mistake, not just because the invasion was repelled, but because it was initiated by a dictatorship. General Leopoldo Galtieri fell from power as a result of the defeat. This is seen as the silver lining to a dark period in the country’s history – an inversion of the view taken by many on the British left who lament that Thatcher’s victory kept her in power for a decade. “Our democracy was born in the Malvinas when Port Stanley fell, though that is not the history that Argentinians like to hear,” said Ricardo Kirschbaum, executive editor of Clarín, the country’s biggest newspaper, and author of a book on the 1982 conflict. “Argentina made a very big mistake in 82, but it was good that it ended the dictatorship.”
Kirschbaum – one of the most prominent opponents of the current government – believes the referendum is a natural step towards the ultimate independence of the islands. In Argentina – and Britain – this is an unorthodox view, but he sees this as inevitable, given the failures of both sides to find a better arrangement that recognises the British character of the islanders and their geographical proximity to South America.
“This referendum won’t change opinion in Argentina, but it will change opinion in the world,” he said. “Argentina does not have a strategy. We need to think of a new approach, but with this government that is impossible.”
Other have questioned the official government line. “Is it correct to use the word ‘negotiate’ if we are not willing to consider giving?” asked the historian Federico Lorenz in an opinion piece this week. “Dare we think, at least as an intellectual exercise, that we may not be entirely right?”
Such views would have been impossible during the dictatorship. Locals say they were rarely expressed even 10 years ago. But even though there is a debate, the fundamental aims are the same as they have been for 30 years: to get back the islands and maintain peace.
“The referendum will change nothing,” said Alonso, the head of the veterans’ group. Asked if his group planned any response, he shook his head. “Next week, we’re not planning anything special. We’ll just have the usual barbecue.”
Falklanders say the first sovereignty referendum in their history is a rebuttal to intensifying Argentinian harassment.
On 10 and 11 March, the 1,500 eligible voters among the 3,000 population will vote on the following question: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom?” People on the windswept South Atlantic islands will stage a rally on Sunday, the first day of voting.
Several expressed excitement ahead of what they see as an appeal to democratic nations for support and an expression of their determination to decide their future.
Rosie King, a fifth-generation islander who went through the war in 1982, said she expected 100% support for British rule. “I hope the outcome says to Argentina that although we are British subjects, we are Falkland Iislanders and we would like to be left as we are.”
According to Mike Summers, a sixth-generation islander and member of the legislative assembly: “Argentina has been aggressive and difficult, and tried hard to stifle the economy of the Falklands through denial of air flight rights, attempts to deter tourism vessels from calling here, bans on fishing businesses working here, and bans on support to hydrocarbons development.
“This has naturally caused islander sentiment to harden against the Argentinian government. It has taken us 180 years to de-colonise from the UK, we have no wish to be recolonised by Argentina.”
Long known for its sheep farming, the islands are set for an oil and gas boom. Petrochemical firms are said to have invested $1bn to exploit the offshore fossil fuels. The oil will not start to flow for four years, but it will be a huge windfall for the islands, where GDP per capita is already around £40,000.
The cost of living is also 20% higher than in Europe because of import costs that have been pushed higher by Argentina’s efforts to restrict port access in south America. As a result, a single banana costs about a pound.
The islanders expect further moves towards self determination, which they say is guaranteed by the constitution and the UN charter.
“We have developed our post-colonial relationship with the UK over several decades, and will continue to strengthen internal self government as the economy expands,” said Summers.