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Getting around sovereignty

Tuesday, November 9th 2010 - 04:10 UTC
Full article 38 comments

By Roberto Cox (*) - Few people in Argentina, or Britain for that matter, are aware that in the years leading up to the war that was fought over the possession of the Islands that Argentina calls the Malvinas and Britain the Falklands, the British government was trying to integrate them with the mainland. Out of deference to the islanders — the Kelpers as they are called — I will not be so bold as to write that Britain was intent on giving the islands and their inhabitants to Argentina, but that was the general idea.

Thus, in the famous phrase of Talleyrand, the war that claimed the lives of 907 people “was worse than a crime, it was an error.” It was a desperate bid by the military dictatorship to regain what was left of its rapidly diminishing and totally undeserved popularity. In mid-1982, the mantle of fear and self-deception that had enveloped Argentina when the military took over was coming loose and people were openly protesting. It was, however, the failing economy, not mass murder, routine torture or ferocious repression that aroused the people.

The war was the last gasp of a cruel dictatorship, particularly galling and wounding for me, because it was unnecessary and stupid. And to rephrase Talleyrand, no error can be worse than the crime of war.

Britain had made a decision that the islands were too costly to maintain and, for several years, successive British ambassadors had been working with successive Argentine governments to restore communications and trade with the islands, which had been severed during the presidency of Perón. The popular dictator made the disputed islands into an aggressively nationalistic issue, stressing sovereignty to the detriment of other considerations, like the people who would be affected by his political populism. As a consequence, the islands, which for many years were closely linked to Patagonia, become isolated. Ties between kith and kin on the Islands and the mainland were broken and the Kelpers had to look to Britain, 6,000 miles away, to sustain them.

I was on close terms with Michael Hadow, the British ambassador to Argentina from 1969 to 1973, when the British government was actively encouraging a closer relationship with the mainland. Scholarships for children to attend bilingual schools in Argentina were arranged. There was an exchange of teachers. Argentina was supplying gas and other valued commodities. Marvel of marvels, the islanders could buy fresh fruit from Río Negro. All was going well. .

Ambassador Hadow told me that his frequent visits to the Islands were paying off. He held town meetings to explain to the islanders how much better their lives would be if they had close ties with Argentina. The problem, he said, was that the Kelpers could not bring themselves to accept Argentina while this country was torn by violence and had no record of stable democratic governance. I recall him telling me how frustrating it was when, having secured agreements that could lead to integration something would happen in Argentina that would scare off the islanders. An obituary in The Independent noted that the then Sir Michael Hadow, “correctly predicted that one day, under an irresponsible government, Argentina would probably attempt an invasion of the Falkland Islands.”

There is no need to go into details to explain what the consequences of the war have been. What is clear is that aggressive nationalism and overemphasis on sovereignty, not to mention the crime if war, will not serve anyone’s interests, least of all those of Argentina. As long as the islanders view Argentina as an undemocratic country with an aggressive government they will resist initiatives that would lead to the eventual integration of the islands with the mainland.

Another way must be found to reconcile the Kelpers with their continental Argentine neighbours, so that one day, perhaps, they can become relatives.

Over the years I have pondered the importance of sovereignty and, as someone born on one of the British islands, I have always been intrigued by the success that the Channel Islanders have had in overcoming the negative aspects of nationalism. The Channel Islands are both British and French. Some of the islands have changed flags half a dozen times. There are few places in the world as tranquil and as successful as the Channel Islands. They provide a model for what the South Atlantic Islands could be.

It is my view that both Argentine and British government policy should seek to lower tension over the islands. Every time a rash statement is made by either government, the media in Argentina and Britain go into a tizzy.

I think that the British government made an enormous mistake when it ordered, or authorized, military operations that involved the firing of missiles. With respect, I think that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner erred when she fired up her Twitter account and got all the twitterers buzzing.

“Serious, very serious,” President Kirchner twittered. “Royal Navy, occupying colonial force ... Islands, reports military exercise with missiles ... Typical nineteenth century colonialism. Anachronistic use of force in violation of international law. They do not care. A clear example of double standards. Conclusion ... pirates for ever?”

Her twitters were erased, but the damage, in terms of raising tension, was done.

I have been delighted to discover that, thanks to that controversial phenomenon Facebook, there is a way to bypass sterile government exchanges and overcome provocative statements.

There is a cool, civilized site on the Internet that seeks understanding and reconciliation. Visitors to the site are reminded: “The Falklands/Malvinas conflict caused the death of 907 people. It's time to put grudges aside, and to seek for reconciliation. Welcome to our Friendship and Reconciliation Project. We invite anyone with a progressive interest in this subject affecting our great nations.”
Here’s the link:

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald

(*) Robert J. Cox, also known as Bob Cox, is a British journalist who worked as editor of the Buenos Aires Herald newspaper, in Argentina. Cox became famous for his criticisms of the military dictatorship (1976/1983). He was detained and jailed and was later released and forced to leave Argentina in 1979 due to threats against his family. He moved to Charleston, South Carolina, US, where he became editor of The Post and the Courier, owned by the same publishing company that owned the Buenos Aires Herald. In 2005 the Buenos Aires legislature recognized Cox for his valor during the dictatorship era.

Top Comments

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  • JustinKuntz

    Mmm, Mr Cox, a routine missile test, communicated in advance, that has been repeated annually for 28 years, that all of a sudden Argentina uses as a pretext for making a fuss. Who is ratcheting up tension there?

    Nov 09th, 2010 - 09:02 am 0
  • Rhaurie-Craughwell

    Quite Justin.

    However I do like the tone of what Roberto is saying (if that is his real name wink wink), sensible chap.

    And the group in question is a start at least sensible well thought out ideas that do not violate the Falklanders rights.

    Nov 09th, 2010 - 09:41 am 0
  • falklandlad

    Mr Cox is caught in a time warp and it suits the unfortunate line he pedals to forget or displace, recent history in which Argentine military follies were dealt a bloody nose. Opportunities for Argentina to progress any form of “lets be nice and find a solution” pardigm (which gives any advantage to Argentina) are permanently dead-ducked. The beligerent and belicose statements of Mr&Mrs K during the last 8 years have merely served to usher in great distance between the Falklands and Argentina. Mr Cox needs to understand that. The gulf is now wider, deeper, and more extensive than immediately pre and post 1982 and as each day goes by the gulf merely grows larger. This is no time for 70's sentamentalism to re-emerge; there is now a new, post-Falklands war generation born in the Falklands who care not a jot for Argentina, its politics or for some flower-power notion of rapproachement! We are where we are and Argentine supporters and its president need to respectively understand that.

    Nov 09th, 2010 - 03:32 pm 0
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