Declassified documents show link between the Beagle channel dispute and the Falklands war
A revealing and unexpected connection between the Falklands conflict of 1982 and the Argentine dispute with Chile over the Beagle channel has been exposed by BBC World in Spanish based on UK declassified documents.
Constanza Hola Chamy had access to declassified UK diplomacy secret documents, particularly the exchange of information between a Chilean diplomat with vast experience in the Beagle dispute and a British diplomat, both of them stationed in Buenos Aires. The time: a month before the actual Argentine landing in the Falklands.
David Joy, at the time British embassy Counsellor in Buenos Aires contacts his Chilean peer Raul Schmidt, who was closely linked to the events of four years before when Argentina and Chile almost went to war over the sovereignty of the disputed Picton, Nueva and Lennox islands in the Beagle channel, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet.
According to the Foreign Office secret records, “Argentina/Chile: The Beagle Channel dispute”, Joy was “particularly interested in listening Schmidt’s comments on the common origin of the current sovereignty problems of Argentina with the UK and Chile governments”.
Schmidt had been cabinet chief of Admiral Patricio Carvajal, who was Foreign Affairs minister of Pinochet until 1978, and thus had first hand and privileged information on the issue.
What Joy collected from Schmidt was immediately informed to London according to a restricted memorandum which was addressed to Colin Bright head of the South American desk at the Foreign Office.
But it would not be until a month later that pieces begun falling into the puzzle which the UK government was intent in understanding, or what is described in the report as “The Schmidt Thesis”.
“The Schmidt thesis is based essentially in the Argentine Navy’s need of a strategic port further south than its current and most secure port, Puerto Belgrano, (south of the province of Buenos Aires). The obvious option Ushuaia was not satisfactory from a security point of view because it is under constant Chilean surveillance” according to the report to which BBC in Spanish had access.
“Therefore Argentines are desperate, according to Schmidt to have some other secure port further south, a goal that could be satisfied by having access to the islands south of Beagle or the Falklands. In this context, Schmidt believes the sovereignty disputes are linked”, adds the report.
The report was received 15 March (1982) and distributed among the highest officials in the Foreign Office.
And then there is a handwritten piece on the report which suggests, two weeks before the beginning of the conflict, and with relations between Buenos Aires and London already severed, that the British were willing to negotiate a naval settlement for the Argentines in the Falklands.
“I think we all agreed that the Argentine interest in the South Atlantic security is part of its interest to win sovereignty over the Islands. After all if all they wanted was a naval base, we could easily accommodate that”.
“Could we easily accommodate an Argentine naval base? Because if that is the case we should have that idea in mind if we resume negotiations”, reads another handwritten comment on the same document.
According to Joy the conversation with Schmidt was the first to suggest that both territorial conflicts for the islands (Beagle and Falklands) in the south could be linked.
“It makes sense” Francisco Panizza tells BBC. Panizza is a Uruguayan national expert in Latinamerican policy who teaches at the London School of Economics Government School.
Panizza adds that there have always been many theories, but always a historic vacuum when it comes to determine why the military government of General Leopoldo Galtieri chose that moment to invade the Falklands.
Leaving aside the exchange between the British and Chilean diplomats, the declassified documents also reveal that the British government had followed with great interest and for quite some time the evolution of the conflict between Argentina and Chile over the three strategic islands in the Beagle channel
Precisely the secret documents indicate that in 1982 Argentina was in the fourth year of intense international lobbying to try and turn back the 1978 mediation of the Pope, which supported the international arbitration under British auspices and that decided to award sovereignty over the Beagle Islands to Chile.
However Argentina committed a major strategic mistake under international diplomacy terms, which finished burying any possibility of support, according to the assessment from the British government reports.
Having dropped at the beginning of that year the 10-year treaty Argentina had signed with Chile to submit territorial conflicts to international arbitrage was not well received by the international community.
Following two unfavourable international interventions, an almost war and years of lobbying, it seemed non productive for Argentina to keep up with those efforts.
“It is still not clear how the Argentines will continue to manage the dispute, given the lack of international support”, pointed out a confidential report from the Foreign Office to 10 Downing Street.
The document was written 29 April 1982, only three days before the Royal Navy sank the General Belgrano, flagship of the Argentine Navy, which ultimately decided the course of the war in favour of the British.