As a young lad, I rode my bicycle at high speed. A consequence of this was that I inadvertently parted company with it and badly cut my right elbow. As the scar healed my mother beseeched me not to pick at it, which I ignored to my detriment. This episode taught me that a picked scab takes a lot longer to heal.
These thoughts came back to me as I read of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s advertisement to assert Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands. This is just one of a long running series of stunts that have characterised Argentina’s approach to sovereignty claims since the 1960s.
Christ Church Cathedral, Port Stanly, with its iconic whalebone arch
The modern stunts, which include the Argentine Olympic hopeful Fernando Zylberberg filming himself for YouTube outside the Globe Tavern in Port Stanley, are tame compared to the more sinister hijacking, hostage taking, gun boat attacks and covert military landings that preceded them. However, they do continue to be a source of irritation, which does nothing to make the Falkland Islanders want a closer association with Argentina.
President Kirchner’s claim is that 180 years ago, Argentina was stripped of the Falkland Islands by the British. As many commentators have already pointed out, that this is not strictly correct. The ebb and flow of 18th and 19th century expansion meant that the islands were settled by various European power, whalers, sealers, German settlers from the United Provinces of the River Plate, American pirates and a penal settlement.
Desolate, razor backed mountains outside Port Stanly
None of these settlements were sustained, although most of them placed flags and plaques claiming the territory for one nation or another. It was reported that the German settlers “appeared greatly rejoiced at the opportunity thus presented of removing with their families from a desolate region where the climate is always cold and cheerless” when the USS Lexington destroyed Luis Vernet’s settlement in 1831on grounds of piracy.
The British reappeared in strength in 1833 to re-establish a military outpost, followed by a sustainable colony in 1840 and stayed.
What is clear from all this is that the Falkland Islands were inhospitable and sufficiently distant from any nation to warrant significant interest or investment. However, the British settlers endured and learnt how to survive on this very edge of the habitable world.
They developed their own culture and way of life, which I have witnessed during numerous visits to the islands over a 10 year period. They became Falkland Islanders, just as the other British settlers in the New World colonies became American or Canadian or Newfoundlanders.
International lawyers will no doubt make a good living arguing over the principles of self- determination and territorial integrity in years to come but the fact is that 180 years of unbroken settlement is a pretty definitive claim. I remember the US Bicentennial in 1976 and I don’t recall the UN debating the American legitimacy of occupation.
President Kirchner knows that her country missed its opportunity to acquire the Falkland Islands during the late 1960s and 1970s when the British government behaved like a seasoned matron as it did its utmost to push its wallflower daughter into an arranged marriage.
Argentina, unable to comprehend the long game, failed to seduce, despite it being the country of the tango, and instead sought to impose its will on the islanders. The macho Latin culture collided with the ‘kith and kin” Anglo-Saxon culture and the marriage of convenience was never consummated.
Daily reminders of the Argentine invasion of 1982
The Argentine “smash and grab” attempt in 1982 changed everything. There is no turning back to what might have been possible beforehand. The British public became aware of the Falkland Islands, through its champion The Sun newspaper.
The opportunity to pass the islands quietly to Argentina was lost. The islanders were granted full British citizenship and increased protection, which involved the building and maintenance of a significant military base on the Islands.
Since then the Falkland Islanders, despite Argentina’s best efforts to hinder them, have developed a thriving and sustainable economy. They are a self-governing British Overseas Territory and are comfortable with their relationship with Britain, as Barry Elsby, a member of the Falklands Islands Assembly, states.
“We are not a colony,” he says. “Our relationship with the United Kingdom is by choice.”
They have no reason to join with Argentina, so why would they want to?
The reality is that President Kirchner knows that she will not see the Falkland Islands peacefully integrated into Argentina during her life time. It is, however, a convenient rallying call for her own political ends and follows the well-worn tactics of previous Argentine rulers when things are difficult at home.
It is a short term strategy that sours neighbourly relations and increases the odds against any future partnership between the Islanders and their Latin neighbours.
My advice to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is to stop picking the Falklands scab and in two, maybe three generations a meaning relationship might be developed with the islanders that could enable Argentina to benefit from the Falklands Islands oil bonanza.