By Henry Srebrnik (*) – Forty years since Argentina launched its disastrous invasion of the South Atlantic archipelago in early April of 1982, its claim to the Falkland Islands remains a national obsession, even enshrined in the country’s 1994 constitution.
The Falklands are officially a British Overseas Territory. Britain started a settlement on the archipelago in the mid-18th century but abandoned it around a decade later, leaving the area under Spanish control. Newly independent Argentina arrived on the scene in 1820 and promptly laid claim to the Falklands, arguing that it had inherited the Islands from the Spanish crown earlier that century.
British troops returned to the Falklands in 1833, expelling its Argentine officials and reasserting the United Kingdom’s claim to the Islands. Argentina have never recognized it.
Long-standing tensions between the two nations boiled over in 1982, and on April 2 Argentine forces invaded and captured the Islands.
Eight days after the invasion of the South Atlantic archipelago, General Leopoldo Galtieri, the head of Argentina’s military junta, addressed fevered throngs from the balcony of his palace overlooking the central Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires.
“If they want to come, let them come, we will give them battle!” he shouted to the cheering crowds in a direct challenge to the British military as a task force travelled south to free the Islands.
The public support seemed to make the war a smart move by the military Junta given that just 10 days earlier, tens of thousands of Argentines had filled that same square in the biggest mobilization against the dictatorship since it took power in 1976, chanting “Elections now!”
The Junta thought that by claiming the Falklands it would be able to turn the tide of public opinion in its favor. But it ended up being their downfall.
On May 21, British commandos made an amphibious landing on the Islands; after a few weeks of heavy fighting and further casualties, the Argentines surrendered, bringing the 74-day clash to a close on June 14. In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British troops and three Falkland Islanders died over the course of the undeclared war.
There are constant reminders of this in Argentina, with signs proclaiming “Las Malvinas son Argentinas,” using the Spanish name for the Falklands. Murals also show the shape of the islands, often painted in the sky blue of the Argentine flag. In many towns and cities, road signs specify the distance to the Falklands.
Throughout the country, soccer stadiums, towns, roads and even the 50 pesos bill carry the name “Argentine Malvinas.”
In a 2021 survey of 5,000 people, more than 81% said the country should continue to claim sovereignty over the islands. Only 10% said it should stop.
Argentina has clung to a non-binding 1965 United Nations resolution that recognized a sovereignty dispute, dating back to the 1830s, and invited the Argentine and United Kingdom governments to negotiate a solution.
Following the 1982 war, there was a period when the issue was put on the back burner. But it gets revived periodically. The Peronist governments of Nestor Kirchner, 2003 to 2007, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, 2007 to 2015, used the Falklands as a rallying cry to drum up support, whereas the liberal Mauricio Macri, in office 2015 to 2019, showed far less interest.
Current Argentine president Alberto Fernandez, in a Sept. 22, 2020 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, reaffirmed the “legitimate and imprescriptible sovereign rights of Argentina over the Malvinas, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, and the surrounding maritime spaces.”
He met China’s President Xi Jinping at the Beijing Winter Olympics this past February, where China reasserted its support for Argentina’s claim to the Falklands.
At the Malvinas Museum in Buenos Aires, created in 2014 under the government of Cristina Kirchner, the nationalist narrative is nourished for future generations.
(*) Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada