Falklands Redux: Is President Kirchner South America's Biggest Troll?
The country's top leadership is again going head-to-head with Britain over the South Atlantic island chain, 30 years later
The Argentine economy is struggling. The government is locked in a dispute with the IMF over the accuracy of its inflation and growth figures, the latter of which is reported to be as high as 25 percent. Protectionism and populism in the form of tariffs, import restrictions, nationalization of industry, and price controls are discouraging foreign investment and capital. Argentinian bonds are currently rated by Fitch as being just slightly above junk status, while the peso has plummeted in value against the dollar.
With growth slowing, inflation soaring, and crime on the rise, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is bearing the brunt of the people's ire. Re-elected in a landslide in October 2011 without the need for a runoff, Kirchner saw her approval rating bottom out at a meager 30 percent last November. In October, 200,000 people marched through Buenos Aires protesting economic failings and systemic corruption, while in November the trades union -- traditional allies of her faction, the Peronist Front for Victory -- organized a 24-hour general strike and instituted road blocks across the city.
It is hardly surprising, then, that against this backdrop of economic and social tumult and strife that Kirchner would seek to bring up the Falkland Islands. Having once fought with Britain over that rocky archipelago of fishermen and sheep farmers in 1982, Argentina's issues of sovereignty and self-determination have come to the fore again in a series of public confrontations with London.
Kirchner's latest dig came via an open letter published in two British newspapers, which called on London to "abide by the resolutions of the United Nations" and "negotiate a solution to the sovereignty dispute" between them -- in other words, negotiate a way to hand the islands over to Argentina. In so doing, Kirchner set out a case that was startling for its misuse and abuse of the historical record:
One hundred and eighty years ago on the same date, January 3rd, in a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism, Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas Islands, which are situated 14,000km (8,700 miles) away from London. The Argentines on the Islands were expelled by the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom subsequently began a population implantation process similar to that applied to other territories under colonial rule.
It does not seem to matter that the Falklands changed hands among various powers (Argentina included) during the 18th and 19th centuries. Neither is it important to Kirchner, evidently, that British presence on those islands dates back to the 1760s, and that when they came under the control of London again in 1833, there was barely an Argentine garrison there to speak of. The president also neglects to mention that since 1833, British control of the Falklands has been peaceful and uninterrupted, save for the war of aggression launched by the Argentine military junta in April 1982.
The response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also took note of the fact that far from being a colony, as Kirchner asserts, the Falkland Islands are a self-governing territory with its own constitution, executive, legislature, and judicial system. "The people of the Falklands are British and have chosen to be so," the FCO said, adding that the Islanders are due to vote in a referendum on sovereignty this year. "We hope that the outcome will demonstrate beyond all doubt the definitive views of the people of the Falkland Islands on how they wish to be governed."
While the government's statement was diplomatic if brisk, the response of Rupert Murdoch's tabloid The Sun was rather more trenchant. Reminiscent of the paper's tactful coverage of the Falklands War in 1982 -- during which it ran with the modest headline "GOTCHA" upon the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano --The Sun published its own letter in the pages of The Buenos Aires Herald that ended this way:
In the name of our millions of readers, and to put it another way: "HANDS OFF!"
PROSPECTING FOR PEACE
The rancor on both sides, and more importantly, the bold urgency of Kirchner's claims, speaks not only to past grievances -- the old wounds of 1982 -- and the economic challenges facing Argentina in the present, but also to the petrodollar future the Falklands might enjoy. For within the islands' exclusive economic zone are oil reserves equivalent to 60 billion barrels. A sudden increase in the price of crude has finally made the extraction of this resource a profitable venture. In 1995, Argentina and the U.K. signed an oil agreement over the seas surrounding the disputed territory, but in 2007 the former unilaterally withdrew from the agreement. Since then, British firms have been prospecting in the area, with Rockhopper Exploration set to begin pumping in the North Falklands Basin in 2016, topping out at 120,000 barrels a day by 2018.
If prospecting in the Falklands Basin proves to be as lucrative as British firms believe it might be, then it will only place additional pressure on the strained relationship between Argentina and the U.K. Deteriorating conditions in the South Atlantic shall also have policy implications for the United States. The question of what is to be done with the Falklands will be forced upon the State Department if the war of words escalates, giving them pause to review its role in a part of the world that it has traditionally considered to be within its sphere of influence.
The last time the United States was challenged to intervene in the Falklands was after the 1982 Argentine invasion. Then, and much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher, the Reagan administration in a display of the most miserable kind of Kissingerian realism decided to maintain a neutral stance. The government of General Leopoldo Galtieri was a reliable ally in the CIA's bloody and revolutionary war on left-wing elements in Latin America. The United States initially feared what would become of the region if his junta were to be toppled amid the tumult of war.
Once the two sides became engaged and Argentina rejected American diplomatic overtures, the United States did come to the side of the U.K., even offering some military assistance. Nonetheless, as late as the end of May but two weeks from an outright British triumph over the forces of the fascistic Galtieri regime, Reagan was attempting to persuade Thatcher to go for the negotiated solution. As Thatcher would put it in her memoirs, he was pushing her to "snatch diplomatic defeat out of the jaws of military victory."
The State Department's stance on the Falklands today remains unaltered and in line with its perceived position as a mediator of interests in the Western hemisphere. It "takes no position regarding the sovereignty claims of either party" yet overall its attitude "remains one of neutrality" and supports "a peaceful resolution to the overall issue" -- echoing the diplomatic stance of the Argentinians which urges negotiations as a means to reclamation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even said as much standing side by side with President Kirchner in the Casa Rosada last March.
If this intensification continues in the South Atlantic -- as the Argentine economy sags, Kirchner's popularity wanes, and oil begins to flow out of the Falklands Basin -- then the United States will find neutrality to be (as Reagan eventually did) woefully inadequate. The Obama administration rightly wishes to avoid confrontation between London and Buenos Aires, but their economic and diplomatic resources would be put to better use persuading Kirchner to exercise restraint in return for some form of aid or assistance. Perpetual nonalignment not only encourages the existing cycle of claim and counterclaim, antagonism and altercation, but most importantly it ignores the will of the very people whose opinions should matter most: the Falkland Islanders themselves.