I laughed heartily as I read the news last night. British prime minister David Cameron accused my birth country, Argentina, of “colonialism” over the Falkland Islands. I originally read about his jibe on an Argentinian news site, and immediately searched for a report in English – I thought this had to be a hilarious “lost in translation” mistake. It wasn’t. Indeed, Cameron warned the British parliament: “What the Argentinians have been saying recently, I would argue, is far more like colonialism because these people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else.”
With this comment Cameron did a bit of historical “re-arranging the furniture”. He conveniently forgot to mention that the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were expelled by an act of force in 1833, and the current population descends from the people brought by the British to replace the Argentinian inhabitants. By definition, this is an act of colonialism. Last night the Argentinian vice-president, Amado Boudou, hit back and qualified Cameron’s statements as “a fallacy, a clumsy outburst ignorant of historical realities”.
While I agree with Boudou that Cameron’s outburst is a fallacy, I believe this gauche pronouncement is a warning, and the product of fear. Cameron cannot possibly be afraid of a reprise of the 1982 war, which was a death rattle by a totalitarian dictatorship. However, he does seem to be afraid of the sudden and unexpected common front manifested in the actions undertaken by the member states of Mercosur to impede the entry to their ports of ships that fly the flag of the Falkland Islands.
Mercosur is an economic and political agreement between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Founded in 1991 by the Treaty of Asunción, its purpose is to promote free trade and the fluid movement of goods, people and currency among its member states. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have associate member status, and Venezuela signed a membership agreement in 2006. For the past 10 years, Mercosur has been strengthening political co-operation and attempting to present a unified front on international trade and economic negotiations. However, its latest statement about the use of ports is a historical first. And ever since the leaders of Mercosur issued this joint declaration on closing ports, Cameron’s government has been escalating its fearful rhetoric.
Over a week ago Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, warned that the UK will resist any joint measures. The Uruguayan ambassador to the UK was summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for an explanation. Yesterday Hague started a visit to Brazil, where the Mercosur decision is said to have taken a central stage. His meeting with the Brazilian foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, must have been a disappointment, considering that Patriota issued this statement:
“Minister Hague knows that Brazil … supports the sovereignty of Argentina over the Malvinas and we support the United Nations resolution that calls for discussion about the issue with Argentina.”
Out of desperation and in a last attempt to change the outcome of this unusual united South American front, Cameron now warns about threats of colonialism and intervention. However, Cameron’s fear should also be contextualised on the home front. With his government marred by what Simon Hoggart defined as “unemployment figures climbing faster than a pantomime beanstalk”, Cameron must appear decisive on some front – any front. And unsurprisingly, his Falklands Islands bravado seems to have coincided with his crisis of credibility on the European Union. Nothing in Cameron’s outburst is fortuitous. Yesterday, as he posed for a photo op with the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, he chose the occasion to issue more bombastic statements about the Falklands:
“The reason for holding a national security council – which also discussed other topics – is to discuss that issue, is to make sure nobody is in any doubt that Britain supports that right of self-determination, and we will go on doing so for as long as people in the Falklands want to continue in that way.”
If Mercosur presents a common front, Cameron will summon his European allies. However, despite Cameron’s histrionics, the weight of a South American alliance can never match the strength of the European Union and Nato. While many of us are observing this new form of political co-operation between members of the global south with increasing interest and enthusiasm, we should be afraid of a combined intervention by the UK and the European Union – more specifically their combined military, economic and sociocultural power, which has been used against many countries that defied colonial rule and western domination.
Leaving aside the legality of claims over sovereignty of the islands, Cameron is quick to emphasise his utmost respect for the self-determination of the Falklands inhabitants. His government should perhaps apply the same respect to the right of self-determination of South American nations, along with their wishes to associate and create alliances free from foreign intervention. After all, his government could start leading by example.
• This article was amended at 6pm on 19 January 2012. The word original has been removed from the following sentence in the second paragraph: “He conveniently forgot to mention that the original inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were expelled by an act of force in 1833.”