By John Fowler (*) - I handed the family's passports to a rather stern-looking official behind a desk, while my wife and mother-in-law passed through into the departure lounge with our daughter, who was just a few months short of her first birthday. Along with the passports, I also handed over three white identity cards. These were issued by the country through which we were in transit on our way to holidays in Britain from our home in the Falkland Islands.
After scrutinising all this documentation the official asked, Where are the baby's papers? I replied that, as he could see, my daughter was entered on my passport, and that I had been advised that was all that was required. You are attempting to take a baby born in this country abroad without authorisation he said, then, sweeping up all our documents, he disappeared into another office with a curt, You must wait here.
While my wife and mother-in-law continued chatting obliviously through the window of the lounge, I was desperately wondering what I could do, if the government represented by this official decided to confiscate my baby. Knowing what they had already proved capable of doing to their own citizens, this seemed a distinct and terrifying possibility.
Fortunately, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than half and hour – the longest in my life – the official returned and we were allowed to continue our journey, with our baby.
As readers who know anything about the recent history of the South Atlantic may by now have guessed, this incident took place in Ezeiza, the international airport of Buenos Aires. The year was 1980, when the only access to the Falklands Islands was through Argentina, which insisted that travellers with passports other than their own had to have a 'white card' indicating that permission to travel had been granted by the Argentine government.
I hope this story goes some way to explaining what to some people may seem the inexplicable lack of enthusiasm from Falkland Islanders in response to the Argentine President's stated desire to replace the once-a-week flight from Santiago with three flights a week directly from Buenos Aires. No matter how cheap such flights might be, or how convenient for those people wanting to travel to Europe – at the moment we travel all day to find ourselves still on the wrong side of the Andes – we have no desire once again to find our external communications in the exclusive hands of what we have to regard as a hostile government.
If this point has been missed by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, her order to her Foreign Minister to arrange such a change to our established communications with the British Government, and not with the government of the Falkland Islands, is a clear indication that in her view the latter – and, by extension, our community - has no legitimacy. In attempting to impose any kind of arrangement upon us without consultation she has once again failed to recognise our desire and right to determine our own affairs and a complete lack of understanding of the relationship which exists between us and the United Kingdom.
On the face of it, of course, to a world which has no real need to concern itself with the rights of three thousand people on a remote group of islands in the South Atlantic, our refusal to accept an offer of direct flights to Argentina may seem churlish, as may also the British Government’s refusal to talk to the Argentines about sovereignty unless we ask them to.
Making herself look kind and understanding of our needs can be the only reason for this about-face by the Argentine President, but before we can bring ourselves to believe in the sincerity of her stated desire “to give peace a chance” she will have to cancel her government’s restrictions against shipping, which are contrary to the international laws of the sea, and lift the ban on charter flights which did so much damage to our tourism industry and so much good to Ushuaia. (She will also, of course, have to remove the clause from the Argentine Constitution which allows no other outcome for sovereignty talks, but that the Falkland Islands become Las Islas Malvinas and an Argentine possession.)
In fact, if the Argentine President is really concerned to increase our connectivity to the outside world, why does she not declare an open skies policy and let Aerolineas Argentinas compete openly and honestly with other airlines to provide our commercial air link to the outside world? I am fairly sure, however, that Argentina’s struggling flag carrier would not be the airline of choice for people here and Buenos Aires would not be the favourite destination.
The President’s proposal is apparently that the 1999 memorandum of understanding between the British and Argentine governments should be revisited. There may be some willingness in the Falklands to see that happen, but only if the discussions can be frank and honest and cover other aspects of that document than just the LAN flight.
I think we would like to see the “sovereignty umbrella” hoisted again so that issues of shared concern like fish stocks and hydrocarbon exploration can be discussed to our mutual benefit without prejudice and we would also really like the Argentine government, as they once promised, to stop using the name Puerto Argentino to identify our capital, Stanley. Unlike Malvinas which is a name with historical authenticity, used in a more or less neutral sense throughout the Spanish-speaking world, Puerto Argentino remains as an unpleasant reminder of an even more unpleasant time and its continued use thirty years later is an insult.
(*) John Fowler is the Deputy Editor at Penguin News